Tampa Bay Buccaneers  

 

Lovie Smith's Buccaneers comeback marked by great optimism

It's the ultimate delay of game call, a move that has provoked a chorus of complaints: In personnel and coaching circles, the reaction to the decision to push this year's draft back two weeks to Mother's Day weekend has been akin to an entire elementary school learning that Christmas would be postponed until Groundhog Day.

Leave it to Lovie Smith to throw a little Pharrell Williams-style bliss into the mix.

"Hey, I'm not a part of that (resistance to the schedule change)," the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' eternally optimistic coach said earlier this week. "To me, it was perfect. For a new coach coming in, those extra two weeks are great, and it was tailor-made for us. The three-day minicamp we had last week, coaching up our players, gave us a better idea of what we need to draft. And believe me, we'll take all the extra time we can get."

Refreshed after a year away from his chosen profession, Smith has been even more unfailingly upbeat than usual as he tackles his second opportunity as an NFL head coach -- and virtually everyone in the Bucs' universe has been energized by the vibe. Coming off the contentious two-year reign of rigid taskmaster Greg Schiano, Bucs employees greeted the return of Smith, a former assistant under Tony Dungy, as though the Prague Spring had come to Tampa.

"Lovie has rejuvenated (One) Buc Place," says linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson, a former Bucs star whose time in Tampa coincided with Smith's first stint with the team.

Put it this way: When Smith said late in our half-hour conversation, "The sun is shining every day here in Tampa," it was impossible to tell whether he was speaking literally, metaphorically or both.

"Everybody's walking around the building with smiles on their faces," says linebacker Lavonte David, one of several young stars on a surprisingly stocked Bucs roster. "(Smith's) a positive guy. He always believes in the great outcome. When you instill that in all of your players, great things can happen."

Fired by the Chicago Bears after a 10-6 season in 2012 -- ending a nine-year run during which he went 84-66 and faced Dungy in a matchup of the first two African-American head coaches in Super Bowl history -- Smith isn't shying away from the heightened expectations surrounding his return.

With people like yours truly hyping the hire, equating Smith's arrival in Tampa with that of Andy Reid in Kansas City a year ago and forecasting a similarly pronounced turnaround, some coaches and general managers would be shooting cold stares and hissing, Slow your roll.

"It doesn't upset me," insisted first-year general manager Jason Licht, whom the Bucs hired a few weeks after Smith's arrival. "I don't think it upsets Lovie, either. That's what we're striving for -- we legitimately feel like we can compete. We never use the word 'long-term' here. We have some good pieces, and we want to get after it right away."

Licht, plucked away from the Arizona Cardinals in January after spending two years as general manager Steve Keim's right-hand man, has been soothed by Smith's healthy combination of supreme confidence and relentless optimism. The two had met briefly in Chicago two years ago, when Licht interviewed for the vacant Bears GM job that ultimately went to Phil Emery -- the man who would fire Smith less than a year later.

When Licht arrived at One Buc Place this year, he expected to meet briefly with Smith in the coach's office before relocating with him to a nearby restaurant. As it turned out, Licht went to bed hungry.

"It was pretty cool," Licht recalls. "I got here at 7 o'clock, thinking we'd visit for about half an hour and go to dinner, and then we started talking. Finally, I looked up at the clock -- it was about 11. He said, 'Oh man, I'm sorry. We never did eat.' It went so fast, though.

"We found out we're on the same page on just about everything. He asked me what I thought of the team. I talked for about 10 minutes, and I could see him shaking his head (up and down). At the end, he said, 'Jason, we see it exactly the same way.' "

Thus far, the Smith/Licht partnership has not been subtle. Shortly after free agency began, the Bucs jettisoned star cornerback Darrelle Revis to create salary-cap space. "Revis is a great player -- not good, great," explains Smith, who trusts his Tampa 2 scheme to prosper, even in the absence of an established shutdown corner. "But we needed more than one great player. With that money, we could get three good ones."

The move followed a flurry of activity that included the signings of cornerback Alterraun Verner, defensive end Michael Johnson and quarterback Josh McCown, among others. Smith quickly installed the 34-year-old McCown -- who thrived during an extended stint in relief of the injured Jay Cutler for the Bears last season -- as the starter in place of incumbent Mike Glennon.

Though Smith is regarded as the quintessential players' coach, Licht says his colleague's perpetually sunny outlook gives the organization a somewhat counterintuitive edge when it comes to things like contract staredowns.

"Oh, it's great," Licht says. "If we have a player targeted in free agency, and negotiations are breaking down because the player wants too much, it actually works to our advantage. An agent might expect Lovie to come in and say, 'Hey Jason, do whatever it takes to get him.' Instead, he's like, 'Hey, if it doesn't work out, just go on to the next guy. It'll be fine. It all works out for a reason.'

"It gives you the Man Card."

Smith's demeanor also conceals a steely competitiveness hardened by his year in exile. Caught off guard by his firing in Chicago and frustrated by his inability to land another head-coaching gig in the immediate aftermath, Smith carefully plotted his comeback, seeking kindred spirits in the process.

Spurred partly by a glowing recommendation from an old rival, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Smith flew ex-Cal coach Jeff Tedford to Chicago last November to see if their philosophies meshed. Tedford, fired in 2012 after a largely successful 11-year stint in Berkeley that included a near-Rose Bowl season with Rodgers in 2004, ultimately agreed to become Smith's offensive coordinator wherever he landed.

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"Hey, we were both unemployed," Smith says. "He's got a long history of (developing) guys who made it to this league. Also, I knew he'd be refreshed."

As far as his dismissal from the Bears goes, Smith says, "Most coaches don't get fired after a 10-6 season. You just kind of leave it at that. I know how hard it is to win 10 games in this league. If there was a low spot, OK, Chicago decided to go in a different direction -- I just assumed someone would hire me (as a head coach) right then. I talked to three teams, but I didn't get an offer. And then, to see the way it played out (with no African-Americans hired despite eight openings), it was concerning."

Now, Smith's chief concern is upgrading a roster that already has its share of elite players, with David, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and receiver Vincent Jackson the most glaring examples. For all the good vibes that have accompanied his return to Tampa, with luminaries from the past such as Dungy, John Lynch, Ronde Barber and Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks stopping by the facility to pay their respects, Smith knows he can create even more excitement by bringing in a new generation of stars.

With the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Bucs have an opportunity to land an impact player -- perhaps even a high-profile quarterback, like former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Conversely, with just six picks overall, there's a strong temptation to trade down and acquire additional selections.

Whatever happens, Smith and Licht believe it will all work out for the best.

"Lovie is so confident (in his plan), and that relieves my stress like you wouldn't believe," Licht says. "We have a lot of players we like in every scenario, whether we move down or stay. There's no panic. It's not like we have a coach who says, 'We need to take this player or we're screwed.' This way, we can let it come to us ... and we don't have to play games. Whatever happens, we are guaranteed to get somebody we like a lot."

Says Smith: "The moves we made in free agency kept us from being held hostage (by having to draft a certain position). If we keep the seventh pick, we feel very good about who we can get. Then you have to keep your ears open for a trade. Either way, we like our options.

"We've done a lot of preparation, and we can't wait for that day to come."

And if the wait is two weeks longer than usual -- well, you won't catch Smith complaining.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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