Tampa Bay Buccaneers  

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers following carefully drawn blueprint

Lovie Smith finally got to move into his new home over the weekend, long after the billboards welcoming the Buccaneers' coach were erected along Tampa's congested roads, back when the other professional ballplayers in town were reporting for spring training.

The Buccaneers returned to begin their offseason program on Monday -- the first day that teams with new coaches could meet -- with a roster that has involved as much flux as Smith's living conditions and has as few deep roots as any snowbird. Last week's trade of receiver Mike Williams to the Buffalo Bills was just the most recent signal that the Bucs are looking to flip their recent fortunes as quickly as a Florida real-estate speculator. Williams' departure -- less than two weeks after he was stabbed in an odd incident at his home involving his brother -- means the Bucs now have only one player remaining on the roster from the 2010 NFL Draft (defensive tackle Gerald McCoy) and none from the four drafts before that.

Even more startling was the decision to release cornerback Darrelle Revis soon after free agency began. Revis, acquired from the New York Jets last offseason for a pair of draft picks, including a first-rounder, was to have been the cornerstone of former coach Greg Schiano's revived defense and of a team that believed it had the stuff to make a 2013 playoff run. Instead, Revis, still not entirely healed from a knee injury and often deployed in ways that did not take advantage of his coverage skills, became a symbol of the bad bets and dysfunction that led to the downfall of Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik.

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New GM Jason Licht professes great respect for Dominik's work, and he ticks off the notable names -- McCoy, receiver Vincent Jackson, linebacker Lavonte David, quarterback Mike Glennon (more on him later) -- that remain from Dominik's time. But to understand the approach Licht, a first-time GM, is taking, it might help to know the source materials he has closely studied.

He was Cardinals GM Steve Keim's right-hand man last year in Arizona, watching Keim -- then a first-year GM himself -- navigate a coaching change and roster overhaul of his own. Licht also delved in-depth into the plan enacted by the Kansas City Chiefs, who took remarkably similar steps and had remarkably similar results. Both the Cards and the Chiefs hired new coaches (Bruce Arians and Andy Reid, respectively), tweaked their rosters and acquired veteran quarterbacks before the 2013 season.

While watching friends and colleagues become general managers, Licht noted that one of the hardest parts of their new jobs was having to make the final decision. Licht also had worked in scouting and personnel roles in New England, where he studied how Patriots coach Bill Belichick operates.

"Everybody knows how intelligent he is, but when you get to know him, you realize he knows how to attack things that are important at the time," Licht said.

When Licht first got the position in Tampa, he vowed to himself that he would not waffle. He would strike quickly and not look back. And so he moved decisively to reshape the Bucs' roster, as the Chiefs and Cardinals had. Both of those squads bounced back quickly: the Chiefs from a two-win season to an AFC wild-card berth, the Cardinals from a five-win campaign to barely missing out on the postseason after going 10-6 in what might be the NFL's toughest division.

"We looked at it pretty in-depth," Licht said. "I know it's a copycat league. Every team (has its) individual circumstances. We couldn't just say, 'They signed these positions,' or, 'They invested the bulk of their money in this unit.' "

But it was something Licht said during the NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando two weeks ago that got to the heart of the torrent of moves. The Bucs didn't release the best player on their roster (Revis) because they doubted his talent, but because of the flexibility they gained by jettisoning his $16 million salary -- flexibility that they've exercised as one of free agency's busiest teams. They have signed a gaggle of unrestricted free agents, including headliners like Revis' replacement, Alterraun Verner, plus defensive end Michael Johnson and quarterback Josh McCown, whom Smith immediately named the starter. In all, Licht expects at least eight of the signees to be starters.

Still, dropping your biggest name is not generally the way to energize fans whose interest had slowly ebbed in the 11 years since the franchise's only Super Bowl victory, a period that has included just two postseason appearances and no postseason wins.

For years, the portraits that hung down the façade of Raymond James Stadium were of players who were nationally recognized, Ronde Barber and John Lynch and Derrick Brooks among them. But as each of those players left, the wins went with them, and a long waiting list for season tickets disappeared. Until last season, the team struggled with repeated television blackouts of home games, reinforcing the sense that the Bucs, whose national profile had long ago dimmed, were becoming less relevant -- and, in the case of the tumult surrounding Schiano, less likeable -- at home, too.

In Orlando, Licht told reporters that he thought it was unfair to ask fans to be patient as the Bucs rebuilt. Those fans, after all, can look around the league and see the result of quick patch jobs.

"I don't want that to come across as an excuse, when you say, 'You've got to be patient; Rome wasn't built in a day,' all the clichés," Licht said. "Those are true, but in this league, you saw Kansas City last year. Arizona -- we flipped the team with a great coach, just like Lovie, and a great atmosphere, a new energy. There's no reason to say we can't compete for a championship this year."

That might seem to be overreaching, especially considering Williams' trade means there is currently no No. 2 receiver to line up with Jackson. (Licht said it would be an oversimplification to assume the Bucs will absolutely take a receiver from a deep class in the draft's first round, although he also said they are well aware of their situation.) But it is hard to make the argument that McCown should have less of an impact than Carson Palmer or Alex Smith did in Arizona and Kansas City, respectively. McCown, who did admirable work in keeping the Bears in the NFC North race last year when Jay Cutler was hurt, was signed as much for his leadership and teaching ability as for his football acumen. Glennon, whom Schiano made the starter after a protracted divorce from former first-round draft pick Josh Freeman, remains on the roster and, in Licht's view, the potential future franchise quarterback (although Teddy Bridgewater visited the Bucs on Monday).

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The signing of the 34-year-old McCown "took care of two needs," Licht said. "We wanted to upgrade the overall unit, and also put Mike Glennon in the best position to ascend. Even Josh McCown knows he's not the long-term solution at quarterback at his age. But he has such a great reputation. He is an incredible resource as a leader and as a teacher."

There are risks to any such remaking, of course, and the Bucs should know them well. Jon Gruden won with a team that was largely already assembled by Tony Dungy; Gruden and Bruce Allen then tried to continue the run by loading up on more veterans. Following that, Raheem Morris, with Dominik alongside, tried to go younger through the draft. Schiano's plan seemed to be a schizophrenic mix of both approaches. All failed, to varying degrees.

But with Smith and Licht moved in and the offseason break essentially over, the wait for the newest new plan would seem to be at an end, as well. And with fans already clamoring to know who the next receiver will be -- even with a roster so new, they could have used name tags at Monday's meeting -- a plea for patience, at least until the draft, might be needed after all.

"It's like when you're furnishing a house and you buy $100,000 worth of furniture," Licht said. "And the first question is, 'What are we going to do about the guest room?' "

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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