This is 1 of a 3 (compacted it because honestly, who has this much time?) part series I've put together. It’s just something to take us up to the start of the season and a follow-on to a similar set of posts from last year.
1) Spotlight: It’s easy to turn the spotlight in this department on Jason Licht, the celebrated replacement for “rock star” GM Mark Dominik. It is the long-awaited makeover of the entire personnel department that Licht implemented after rolling in as Lovie Smith’s “straw-man”, however, that should catch the eye of Buc fans. It is no secret that the Bucs have struggled in the player personnel department for more than a decade. Perhaps as important as the end of the Dominik regime is the end of a line of player personnel men that dates back two decades to Rich McKay. The bottom-line for Buc fans is that the front office staff including Dennis Hickey, (thankfully) former Director of Player Personnel, was largely sent packing by Licht.
Licht’s approach has, thus far, been admirable. He clearly rolled in with a new vision for managing player personnel. Licht got the job late and was locked in, initially, to some of the former personnel men in his inherited front office. It shouldn’t escape fans that he didn’t roll in with a guillotine, ready to lop off the heads of those he didn’t want in, what is unmistakably, his department. Licht took a measured and incremental approach indicative of sound management and implemented his vision for personnel management rather than hamstringing himself with broad and sweeping change in the days prior to free agency and the draft.
Still, those changes came, though on Licht's measured and thoughtful calendar. He brought Jon Robinson over from New England to replace Hickey. He gracefully moved Shelton Quarles from Director of Pro Scouting to his current post as Director of Football Operations, retaining both talent and experience without upsetting legacy. He brought Mike Biehl in from San Diego as the Director of College Scouting to replace Eric Stokes, who followed Hickey to Miami. Those changes trickled down to positions like National Scout Andy Speyer who came in from Philadelphia, and before he was done, Licht had reshaped his entire player personnel department without gutting it just prior to the the critical early periods of personnel management.
2) Fresh meat: With this much new management in the building, it’s easy to assume that the general approach to both the draft and free agency would shift. Licht showed that immediately with a whirlwind tour of free agency that saw him unload Darrelle Revis and his overstuffed contract for a long and lean DE in Michael Johnson, the best CB in the class (and one unequivocally more suited to the T2) Alterraun Verner, and immediate ancillary impact players like DT Clinton McDonald and TE Brandon Myers. He wrapped all that up with the acquisition of this year’s most attractive QB prospect, Josh McCown. When the dust settled, the direction was clear, and despite the desires of some fans to rebuild, yet again, Licht had stamped the offseason with the clear and resolute desire to win…Now!
Licht continued the overwhelming shift in philosophy on draft day. Many a Buc fan had long pined for a GM that ignored "perceived need" to pursue a “best available” strategy in the draft. Those fans got positive proof that the new GM had exactly that design in mind when he ignored a known weakness at OG to draft a pass-catching RB in Charles Sims of West Virginia into a group of RBs thick with both talent and promise. Licht knew coming in that he had a gap (some would argue, chasm) at OG. He ignored that and took Sims, a player known for pass-catching ability more akin to a WR than a RB. Whether the Sims move will pay dividends remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Licht was taking an approach Buc fans had not seen.
3) Weak link(s): For all the glamour of his FA acquisitions and draft, Licht (and Lovie) left plenty to the imagination early on in their acquisition strategy. No less than a year ago, most Buc fans felt pretty comfortable with the OL. Last season, however, rang the bell on a lesson last learned not ten years hence when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen had to rebuild the OL from a shamble left by Rich McKay and exceedingly poor draft and development strategy. Gruden and Allen started out throwing money at the problem with the tremendously ill-advised additions of players like Todd Steussie and Matt Stinchcomb and relented by 2006 spending their top two picks on Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood.
The lessons learned from 2003 to 2006, as poignant as they may have been, were not the point in the 2014 retooling of the OL, however. Licht had a singular purpose in building this OL and that was to put a more athletic group on the field. The OL failed for many reasons last season, not least among them malady and injury. This OL is completely different, however, in both form and structure. The Bucs have shifted toward a more athletic front to complement new Offensive Coordinator Jeff Tedford’s scheme.
On the surface, the addition of Anthony Collins and Evan Dietrich-Smith for long-time stalwarts like Donald Penn and Jeremy Zuttah can be dressed as lateral moves. That, they are not. Both players exemplify a shift in scheme to which the former players were not suited. Doubtless, there is work to be done on this OL, most notably at OG, but the additions and subtractions add up to a complete re-wickering of philosophy with this unit.
4) Battles to watch: Aside form OG, which remains a genuine trouble spot for this team, significant battles remain elsewhere. Most notable among the questions are left defensive end, slot receiver, nickel back, division of labor at RB, kick returner, and whether or not the Bucs will even field a fullback. All of those will be addressed in subsequent posts, but there is plenty of uncertainty remaining with this roster.
5) What to expect: It’s fair to say the makeover isn’t complete. Obviously, we’re looking at a 2015 offseason geared toward shoring up the OL, adding LB depth and finding thirds at both receiver and corner. Much of the roster finds itself in an evaluation period. With only 35 players returning from last season, it’s fair to assume that by 2015 opening day, this roster will have even fewer carry-overs from the Dominik years. The only thing Dominik did well was luck into a few genuine superstars like Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. It’s clear that Lovie and Licht are more than tickled to have players like those in their locker room, but it’s equally clear that they believe the 4-12 Buccaneers of 2013 needed both a kick in the pants and a whole-hearted reshaping.
1) Under the microscope: In all his years as the head coach of the Bears, Lovie Smith’s Achilles, like his forebear, Tony Dungy, was his relationship with his Offensive Coordinator. The early emphasis for Lovie and company will be on setting a new tone and establishing a tradition that leads to consistency in Tampa. The enduring legacy, however, will center around Lovie’s ability to both identify and work with an OC who complements his vision and focus.
Enter Jeff Tedford. Tedford, like Lovie was out of coaching in 2013. The two came together some time during the intervening year and had a chance to come to clear enough terms that Lovie and Tedford were pretty well a package deal. Whatever common ground they found, Lovie immediately introduced Tedford as his go-to OC when granted the job by the organization. The greatest mystery of the offseason is what will Tedford do as an NFL OC. Long regarded as a QB guru, in the college ranks, Tedford rolls into the Buc job with a pair of projects at the QB position. He also rolls in with a project of reshaping what can only be classified as a miserable offense.
I’ll tell you later where I think Tedford is going, but more than any other single factor, both the success and ceiling for the 2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers hinges on Jeff Tedford’s offense.
2) Fresh meat: The entire coaching staff has been re-envisioned. Lovie had a year to work on this staff and came in with two things clearly in focus. First, it was clear mere days after his hiring that Lovie’s network exceeded that of either of his two predecessors by light years. The thing Buc fans should be most thankful for (not to mention the thing that should be most apparent) is that Lovie is respected by both players and coaches. The man’s relationships around the league are profound and that is exactly what the Glazers were banking on when they made him the head coach.
Second, and more importantly, I’ll wager, Lovie had a clear vision of everything that need be in place to build a champion. It is clear from his first offseason as the head man that Lovie had some time to think, clearly and candidly, about where he went wrong in his first stint as a head coach. The Lovie Smith that walked out of Chicago as a 10-6 head coach who failed to be exceptional, despite achieving uncommon success, is absolutely not the Lovie Smith who walked into OBP.
The man had some time to think. The man had some time to regret. As a result, the man has a vision rooted in reality, rooted in tradition, and rooted in practicality.
That, Buc fans, is not fresh meat. That is not a rah-rah mentality. That is not a man for a season. That is a wholly reinvented approach to discipline and dedication.
3) Upward mobility: One of the great things about this staff is that they aren’t going anywhere for a while. Jeff Tedford is embarking on his first stint as an NFL coach. Regardless of success, which will be limited by his OL, Tedford isn’t going anywhere. He’s not a career coordinator, but the NFL will want to see a couple of good seasons before it promotes him. Leslie Frazier had his share of adversity and bad luck in Minnesota as the HC. Because of the nature of his position with this team, we’ve got a season or three of engineering dominating defense before we have to worry about him leaving. It will happen because architects are in short demand, but it is unlikely that he spends less than two seasons as the Bucs' Defensive Coordinator.
4) Hot seat: It will take a while before anyone’s seat really warms up at One Buc Place, but if there is a least envious position on this staff, that belongs to George Warhop. He has the unenviable task of taking a force of cast-offs and low-round picks and turning them into an Offensive Line good enough not to be a complete liability. Warhop is a seasoned NFL vet and he’s well acclimated to being forced into failing propositions. He’s clearly faced with the largest deficit of talent on this staff.
5) What to expect: This is the million dollar question for Buc fans. How much success can we reasonably expect? Will the Bucs be the Kansas City Chiefs of 2014?
With a completely revamped OL and a new philosophy on defense, I’d caution you against getting your hopes high early. Nevertheless, I will tell you what you can expect on both sides of the ball. The common ingredient for this squad will be exactly what we’ve already seen from Lovie and company. They will look for the early lead and then lean on talent and ass-busting work to ensure the win.
This staff didn't looking to retool in the offseason, it looked for immediate success. I expect exactly the same thing on game-day. I expect this defense to be egregiously aggressive in attacking opposing offenses. That philosophy is in keeping with both Lovie and Leslie’s modus operandi. It’s also in keeping with the personnel they’ll roll out on opening day. The ingredients are there for a dominating style of football. Question is, whether the NFL is still a ripe field for the Tampa 2. This won’t be exactly the defense we saw in years like 1999 and 2002, where opposing offenses knew exactly what they were going to see, and still couldn't manage to overcome it. This will be a defense with a bit of mystery and a lot of talent, and the goals will be the same and success will follow.
As I alluded to in the Under the Microscope bit above, the real test of this team will be on the side of the football with the most unknowns – Offense. Jeff Tedford is going to field a scheme that we haven’t seen since the Les Steckel days. It will be aggressive early, undeniable in the red zone and geared toward putting the defense, our defense, in a position to pin its ears back and destroy QBs. I believe that this team will look deep often, pound opposing defenses into submission with a run game built around more than one player, and implement speed and overwhelming height in the passing game.
Most importantly, I believe this offense will depart from every other offense Buc fans have ever known and go for the throat. Every other offense. Every other OC. Every other personnel package. This O is built to destroy, plain and simple. The QB they brought in, the draft picks they made, and most importantly the OC and how he came to be associated with Lovie Lee Smith are absolute evidence of that.
Lovie and Tedford are on the same page because Lovie understands that he wasn’t ruthless enough in his first stint as an HC.
That will change with this unit.