The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are back! Maybe.
I laughed while typing that line. But it's true.
Heading into the 2014 season, there is no greater variable than Tampa Bay. And that's largely because, on the player level, there is no greater variable than Josh McCown.
McCown and the Buccaneers are the biggest, most fascinating preseason maybe I can remember in quite some time.
Make no mistake: The Bucs' goal in 2014 is to hit the playoffs. That's why they fired head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik and brought in Lovie Smith and Jason Licht -- who make up a fantastic pairing, in my estimation. The defense is loaded with emerging studs at each level, including Gerald McCoy (one of the game's best defensive tackles), linebacker Lavonte David (a Defensive Player of the Year candidate) and free-agent acquisition Alterraun Verner (a cornerback who perfectly fits Smith's defensive scheme). The offense, though, carries some questions, starting at the game's most important position.
Smith and Licht inherited a young quarterback, Mike Glennon, who displayed fine potential in his rookie campaign. Entering the 2013 NFL Draft, my quarterback colleagues at CBS Sports Network -- Phil Simms, Rich Gannon and Steve Beuerlein -- all thought Glennon could be the best QB in the class. That appeared to be the case last season. And yet, Smith and Licht didn't hand him the keys to the car, opting instead for a 35-year-old with 38 career starts.
Yup, the new regime handpicked Josh McCown to be Tampa Bay's quarterback, pouncing on him at the outset of free agency. Imagine if I told Bucs fans this would happen a year ago. What a turn of events.
McCown has shown flashes during his 11-year NFL career, but he's mostly played the headset-and-clipboard role. (His journey is detailed in colleague Judy Battista's fine feature on backup quarterbacks.) However, McCown seized an opportunity last season in Chicago, filling in brilliantly for the injured Jay Cutler. Under the tutelage of quarterback guru Marc Trestman, McCown posted 13 touchdowns passes (to one interception) and a 109.0 quarterback rating, leading the Bears to three wins in his five starts. He was simply spectacular.
Can he do it again?
I spoke with McCown earlier this week in a wide-ranging 20-minute interview on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," and the veteran quarterback is thrilled to be "the guy" after years of operating in the shadows.
"All things considered, it is very humbling," McCown told me. "It's a neat place to be for my family and me. Every day, I walk on the field, and you are exactly right -- looking back on the past few years, where I was, how this journey turned out, I'm humbled."
McCown knows there are those who doubt him as he begins the next phase of his journey, those who wonder if he can bring last year's Windy City magic to Tampa.
"It is a fair assessment," McCown said. "But going into your 13th year (McCown spent one year in the United Football League), there's a different sense. You put the time in to play at a high level. There was a standard set last year. You don't want to back off of it. To make the jump that we did, you understand what it takes to do that. You want to bring the work ethic and those mechanisms to Tampa."
He also knows he has to prove he belongs in a QB-blessed NFC South and looks to draw on past experiences to expedite his initiation process.
"Things (in Tampa) are going to be different, but there are things you carry over," McCown said. "The way you approach film. The way you study with receivers and the offensive line. You hope it speeds up the learning curve when you are in the division with Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan. We have a great Lovie Smith/Leslie Frazier defense, but it is a quarterback-driven league. And the way those quarterbacks play at a high level, we have to be great on offense."
That potential does exist in Tampa. Bowling-ball back Doug Martin is healthy. Vincent Jackson is a bona fide star at receiver. And now that No. 7 overall pick Mike Evans is healthy, the rookie wideout is quickly developing a rapport with McCown. McCown is high on the team's second-round pick, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, as well. This group can be dynamite under the watchful eye of coordinator Jeff Tedford, who's moving to the NFL after a long stint (2002-2012) as the coach at Cal. McCown loves his new play caller: "Great, fresh set of eyes from the college game with new ideas. Look at what Chip Kelly did. I'm excited to see how this plays out."
Yes, I can imagine McCown truly coming into his own and having a Rich Gannon-esque finish to his NFL career.
One looming (and massive) concern: Tampa's offensive line is a major question mark. And when I say "question mark," I mean even the starting quarterback doesn't know who his offensive guards are.
"We understand Evan (Dietrich-Smith) is our center," McCown said. "Anthony Collins and Demar (Dotson) hold down the tackles. We are sorting out the guards right now. I will leave that to the coaches. We are figuring that out in camp right now. Early in a program, you have a coaching change, you have to learn a little bit about a position. We are going through it, but I trust our coaches and decision makers to not let us down."
He should trust the staff. It's great. And I'm not surprised to see NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reporting that disgruntled 49ers guard Alex Boone is on the Bucs' radar. (Although I don't see San Francisco dealing him.) I'm sure Licht will do everything he can to shore up this area of great concern. But right now, it's just that: an area of great concern. A shoddy offensive line could blow up Tampa's best-laid plans. This is a big deal. McCown knows there is no margin for error in his new division.
"It's always competitive," McCown said of the NFC South. "You don't repeat as the division winner. The level of play is remarkable. We understand that. We understand there are going to be six games a year that are going to be fierce and intense and feel like playoff games. Look at the defenses. Carolina's defense is great. The job Rob Ryan has done in New Orleans. Mike Smith in Atlanta. And the great quarterbacks I referenced earlier."
If Tampa can shore up its offensive line, the overall talent is there to break through and win 10 games. The new regime inspires great hope. Smith is the ideal coach to replace Schiano, a taskmaster who wasn't loved by his players. McCown, who spent parts of two seasons with Smith in Chicago, called the coach a "straight shooter with a high standard, but it comes from a place of genuine care with a wonderful approach." Perfect.
This is a storyline with intoxicating potential: McCown rewrites his personal history while piloting Tampa Bay back to the Promised Land.
I believe in the Bucs.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.