Tampa Bay’s recent transactions have seen the Buccaneers bring in an influx of talent. The free agency period saw the team bring in key players in Michael Johnson, Clinton McDonald and Alterraun Verner, along with expected starter Josh McCown, and the 2014 draft came and went without a defensive player being called while Mike Evans and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins highlighted the annual event.
Even with talented players being added to both sides of the ball, no addition has been more important than that of head coach Lovie Smith. Since Jon Gruden’s departure, the Buccaneers have seen two mediocre coaches "lead" the team to victories in 35 percent of their games— Raheem Morris won 17 of 48 games in three seasons, while Greg Schiano won 11 of 32 games in his two seasons as coach. Now that Smith is in charge, there have been several predictions that the Buccaneers will win the NFC South.
With a new scheme, new players and a new coach, winning the division seems far-fetched to many, but optimism comes with a winning coach—something that the organization has gotten away from in recent years. To many, the hiring of Lovie Smith has brought credibility back to the Buccaneers. Smith’s proven ability to build strong defenses and get the most out of defensive personnel has Buccaneer fans excited for a possible return to prominence. For that to come to fruition, several things need to happen.
The Defense Must Be Outstanding
As was stated before, Lovie Smith has proven that he can develop very good defenses. According to this article, Smith has coached for a top 10 defense in 14 of his 17 years in the NFL. Of those 14 seasons of top 10 defenses, 2 seasons resulted in the No. 1 overall defense, and the defense ranked top 5 overall on 7 occasions. During his tenure with the Bears, Smith had talented defensive rosters, but one could argue that this current Buccaneers’ roster rivals them all in overall talent.
Smith’s time as head coach of the Bears saw fierce pass rushes that, often, were led by contributions from depth rather than one dominant pass rusher. In 8 of Smith’s 9 seasons as head coach of the Bears, the team surpassed 30 sacks in the season. Of those 8 seasons, 4 of them resulted in the team reaching 40 sacks—three of those four teams (2005, 2006 and 2012) were led by double-digit sack players. Not many of those depth charts were as talented along the defensive line as what Smith has inherited and built on this past offseason. If the defensive line can consistently create pressure, opportunities for turnovers will come and turnovers, much like they were in the Buccaneers’ glory days, are emphasized as a major part of the success of the defense. For Tampa to win the NFC South, Smith and Frazier will have to work magic with the defense, molding it into a force so that the team can stand a chance of taking the division.
Jeff Tedford Must Be > Previous Two Offensive Coordinators
Terrible offensive coordinators have plagued the Buccaneers. Since the 2002 season, Tampa Bay has only had an offense that ranked in the top half of the league (in YPG) on three occasions—in 2003, the team finished with the 10th ranked offense; 2008 saw the team finish as the 14th- best offense and the 2012 squad finished ranked 9th in the league. Under Greg Schiano, offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan was responsible for the 9th-ranked offense of 2012; however, after leading an exciting offense for six weeks (Weeks 6-11 of 2012), Sullivan looked overmatched for the rest of the 2012 season—a trend that seemed to carry over into the 2013 season and, when combined with key injuries, resulted in the league’s worst offense.
Sullivan’s predecessor, Greg Olson, was regularly criticized for his inability to make a competent and consistent offense. Olson’s offenses showed predictability and lack of creativity and were unable to mask players’ weaknesses. Although Oakland Raiders’ players were praising Olson before the 2013 season, he was more well-known for the "Benn’d-Around" than offensive success by the time he left Tampa Bay. Before Olson came to town, the offense was under the control of head coach John Gruden, who was viewed as an offensive guru because of the success he brought to the Raiders’ organization. While Gruden’s presence was able to push the team to a win over the Raiders in the 2002 Super Bowl, his "offensive genius" only pushed the Buccaneers into the top half of the league twice in his seven years as HC/OC.
Although there’s been much secrecy about the type of offense that will be employed in the upcoming season, Tedford has been seen as an innovative mind not like any that the Buccaneers have seen. Fans are hoping that his long history of developing college quarterbacks can transition into the NFL and that he can create some magic with the current quarterbacks, recreating Josh McCown’s success from the 2013 season and molding Mike Glennon into the "quarterback of the future" that he’s been labeled as.
Schematically, there is much mystery about Tedford’s offense as well. Other than the "speed in space" moniker that has been repeated by Tedford, not much about the offense has been revealed—and even "speed in space" has become unclear to some after the drafting of 6’5" Mike Evans. There has been speculation that the running game will be based on a zone-blocking scheme, but there has not been much information given on the passing game, other than assumptions that the offense will attempt to imitate that of Mark Trestman’s Bears offense, while also featuring some two-TE sets similar to the New England Patriots. However the offense looks, it must be effective. Not many are expecting the Buccaneers to challenge the Saints or Broncos in terms of offensive productivity, but an effective attack that can take pressure off of the defense and rank somewhere in the middle of the pack could be what the team needs to finally return to the playoffs.
Following The Trend Must Work in the Glazers’ Favor This Time
In the last five years, the Glazers have seemingly followed the popular trend of the NFL. When young coordinator Josh McDaniels was an up-and-coming head coach candidate, the Buccaneers pounced on the opportunity to secure the services of their own "rising star" in Raheem Morris. Similarly to McDaniels’ tenure as head coach with the Denver Broncos, the experiment with Morris as head coach was a failure. Morris’ teams lacked talent at key positions, at times employing starters who were clearly promoted beyond their level of competence (*cough* Sabby Piscitelli). In a sense, the team became a macrocosm of their head coach himself—incompetent and often unprepared—which led to Morris being fired after 10 straight losses and a 17-31 overall record during the 3-year span.
After Morris was fired, the Glazers went in the opposite direction by hiring Greg Schiano, following the trend of NFL teams hiring college coaches. Unfortunately, Schiano’s hiring did not bring the organization the same success that Pete Carroll brought to the Seattle Seahawks. Schiano restored discipline to a team that was lacking it after three years under Morris; however, Schiano’s "tough guy" act wore thin with the players when success didn’t follow. It’s even been said that Schiano and his coordinators ignored the suggestions of their players, including All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, instead attempting to fit players into a defensive scheme that wasn’t working. After his firing, even more has come out about the players’ problems with him.
This time around, the Glazers went with a proven winner as their head coach. After being fired by the Bears (after a 10-6 season), Smith took a year off before being hired to lead the Buccaneers. In 9 seasons as head coach of the Bears, Smith amassed an 81-63 record, which includes 5 winning seasons and 3 division championships. It can be assumed that the Glazers, along with Buccaneer fans, are hoping for a turnaround similar to what Andy Reid provided the Kansas City Chiefs, who finished second in the AFC West after going 2-14 in 2012.
Smith has the tools to make the Buccaneers into a contender. Players both old and new have enjoyed playing for Smith, who treats the players with respect and dignity. The current Buccaneers roster is arguably the most talented that Smith has coached in his career. With a proven defensive coordinator in Leslie Frazier, along with Smith’s experience building strong defenses and an innovative mind leading the offense, the Buccaneers have a chance of surprising many this year.