Worst to First? The Buccaneers Believe It
Forget about rebuilding or taking it slow. Tampa Bay's new general manager Jason Licht says his team is ready to win now. Can coach Lovie Smith, QB Josh McCown and company really compete for an NFC South division title in 2014?
First-year general managers generally say the same things. They express optimism that the losing franchise they took over can rebound. In the next breath, they acknowledge the reality that the team doesn’t quite measure up yet.
Jason Licht, the first-time GM of the Buccaneers, doesn’t have that air about him. He’s a realist. The 43-year-old has been around the NFL block, working the past 18 years in the scouting and personnel departments of the Panthers, Patriots (twice), Eagles and Cardinals. Licht knows talent, and he sees it in the Buccaneers.
“I think we’re going to compete,” Licht says, walking off the field after the team’s final practice before summer break. “No, I know we’re going to compete, for the division this year.”
In many ways, that isn’t an outlandish statement. The NFC South, where Tampa Bay resides, hasn’t been overly dominating. Going into next season, the Saints (11-5 last season) appear to have the strongest team, and the Panthers (12-4) aren’t far behind though they were hit hard by departures. The Falcons (4-12 a year after being in the NFC Championship Game) hope to prove that last season was an aberration. But really, why can’t the Buccaneers, coming off a 4-12 campaign that resulted in the firing of coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik, compete for the division title this season?
Take one look at the Bucs’ defensive depth chart, and remember that former Bears coach Lovie Smith is running things after a year off, and a competitive Tampa Bay team is very much in the realm of possibility.
“Absolutely, I sleep comfortable at night,” Licht said. “I know this is going to be a very solid defense. Not just from the players we have, but who we have coaching it. I couldn’t be more impressed with the staff that we have and the players, and adding (former Titans cornerback) Alterraun Verner to the mix. We have a lot of talent.”
If there’s anything that keeps Licht awake at night, it’s the offensive line. He’s very confident in left tackle Anthony Collins (free agent from the Bengals), center Evan Dietrich-Smith (Packers) and right tackle Demar Dotson. It’s the two guard spots that need tending. Left guard Carl Nicks, a former All-Pro with the Saints, played just two games last season because of a toe injury and a recurring MRSA infection. He’s not expected back until training camp. At right guard, there will be several players competing for time.
“We have three offensive linemen that I think could play for any team, both tackles and the center are players that I love,” Licht said. “It needs to jell inside at guard. It’s going to be a competition in there (at right guard). And not knowing if Carl is going to be healthy and what his status is, we have to prepare for all scenarios.”
The Buccaneers are also a bit short of proven weapons to catch the ball from quarterback Josh McCown. Outside of Vincent Jackson and tight end Tim Wright, the Bucs are largely unproven. They’ll need top draft picks Mike Evans (receiver) and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins (tight end) to get up to speed quickly at positions where rookies notoriously struggle. The Bucs are hoping offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford will be able to acclimate the rookies quickly after his long stint as Cal’s head coach.
“You can see that happening on the field,” Licht said of Tedford’s ability to relate to the young players. “I’ve been very impressed with his attention to detail but also his creativity and how to get the right fits out there and the matchups out there. He’s just real creative. He reminds me of (former Patriots offensive coordinator and current Texans coach) Bill O’Brien, kind of his approach and his attention to detail and he’s just a football guy through and through. I know why Lovie hired him. Lovie spent a whole year going through various scenarios who he was going to hire at each position. (Tedford’s) got no agenda, he’s just a football guy and very creative and very smart.”
While the Bucs spent a lot of money on free agents like Verner, Collins and end Michael Johnson, they feel the most impact will come from adding McCown at quarterback. He is providing the type of team-wide leadership that the Bucs have missed since, arguably, Derrick Brooks retired after the ’08 season. Licht didn’t know McCown well, but after he was hired, Smith basically mandated that team sign the 34-year-old journeyman.
“Lovie talked about it since day one when I was hired about Josh and how Josh was the type of person we needed in this locker room and on this team for the very reasons you’re talking about,” Licht said. “Of course I believe what Lovie said and trust him, but to see it firsthand within the first days that we actually signed him … the guy is just special. He lives, breathes and eats football. Somehow, he just has a way to capture the entire team. They all love this guy. He’s really one of the most special leaders I think I’ve ever been around.”
That’s high praise coming from Licht, who was around Tom Brady in New England for years. “And I say it meaning it too,” Licht said.
Licht also believes that the Bucs’ turnaround will be immediate, and not gradual.
“Honestly, I feel really good,” said Licht, who raved about his relationship with Smith. “I feel a lot better than I anticipated feeling when I first took the job. If I had a crystal ball and ask what’s this going to look like in June, am I going to be stressed out all summer? It’s so much better than I ever anticipated. I hate to sound cliché but we felt like we addressed most of the needs. There’s more work to be done, no question. But, yeah, I feel really good about where we are.”
MORE ON BAALKE
Thank you for reading my profile earlier this week of 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, who is a complicated but extremely successful man. Since not much is known of Baalke nationally, I trended toward more of a straight personality profile. However, there were several nuggets about his thoughts on the NFL and why he does thing that did not make the piece. Here are a few:
On his influences: “Dick Haley was a great mentor. One of the best ever in the business in my opinion. (Bill) Parcells, (Bill) Belichick, guys that really believed in what they were doing and really understood what they wanted at every position. What’s the prototype OLB, what’s the prototype ILB? How do you want your team to look? Coach Parcells’ rule of thumb was don’t make exceptions because once you make an exception, then you’ll tend to make another and another and another and pretty soon you have a whole team of exceptions. So that’s what are you looking for, what players fit your system, what players fit the identity that you’re looking for and then go get those players. It’s really as simple as that. Being unwavering in making exceptions. Once you start, when do you stop? That is pretty much where that was formulated.”
On Bill Belichick: “I think Coach Belichick’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around and probably one of the best coaches the game’s ever seen. He’s extremely thorough. He’s extremely disciplined in his approach. He’s simplistic and complex at the same time. Some people take the simple and make it complex. Bill takes the complex and makes it simple and I think that when you’re able to do that and do that for your players, they can function better mentally and physically and that’s the goal. The goal is to reduce the amount of mental drag on your players so they can play the game fast. And finding players that can do that is an important quality that we all look for.”
On the pressure to compete with the Seahawks: “I can’t be consumed by what takes place in Seattle any different than Kansas City or Baltimore or St. Louis or any other place. What we’re consumed with is getting better and getting better at every aspect of our organization and there’s no better way to get better than to self-evaluate: what have you done well, what haven’t you done well, where can you improve and do the same with every aspect of the organization.”
On the development of young players: “It’s hard to draft a young guy and expect great things from him year 1. That doesn’t happen very often in the NFL. That’s not to say that young guys can’t play, but it’s hard to bring them into key roles as young players and expect them to perform at a high level. So it’s better to get a year under their belt. So if you can stay a year ahead of the curve and you can get a guy in and you may not need as a full-time player year 1, but work them into that role year 2, year 3, that’s an ideal situation. It doesn’t always work that way. Guys get injured, other things happen, and you have to be able to adapt. And our coaching staff does a tremendous job working with young players and developing young players. We saw that last year with Eric Reid, couple years ago with Mike Iupati and (Anthony) Davis, Aldon Smith rookie year. Bruce Miller came in as a young guy and coach (Tom) Rathman got him playing good enough to be a Pro Bowl caliber guy. It does happen but it really comes down to identifying the talent, and then developing the talent. And that’s two separate things. For this all to work, you have to have both things working as one.”
1. The idea of an NFL source calling the effort by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham to be tagged as a receiver under the franchise tag a “naked cash grab,” as one did to ESPN.com’s Mike Triplett, is fall-on-the-ground funny. I mean, is there a professional sports league that looks for money in every conceivable corner more than the NFL? Everything’s about revenue and ratings. Talk about a lack of self awareness.
2. You better believe that Graham has a great case to earn $12.3 million as a receiver rather than $7.035 million as a tight end, and don’t be surprised if the Saints and Graham reach a deal before Graham’s grievance is heard on Tuesday. As colleague Andrew Brandt is fond of saying, “Deadlines spur action.” There is little that separates Graham from many receivers. He’s not the greatest blocker in the world, so he lines up off the line almost 70 percent of the time, according to ESPN. Graham is a receiver by definition in almost every respect. The NFL and the Saints know this. Just like the Packers knew about Jermichael Finley before they struck a deal with the free-agent tight end before his grievance in 2012.
3. Yes, Vikings receiver Jerome Simpson said this week that he’s worth more than the team is paying him. But it was refreshing to hear him understand that he put himself in this position. “I made my bed, so I got to lay in it,” Simpson told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I got to just keep improving and move on and make plays. When it’s time to get paid or whatever and get the contract I deserve, then it’s going to happen.” Simpson was arrested in November on suspicion of drunk driving, and pled guilty in ’12 after mailing two pounds of marijuana to his home when he played with the Bengals. Subsequently Simpson’s salary went from $2.1 million to $1 million this season.
4. Interesting that Browns coach Mike Pettine said that receiver Josh Gordon doesn’t hustle as much as he should during practice. Somebody should send a copy to former offensive coordinator Norv Turner. (I kid because I love; Turner is one of the best offensive coordinators in the history of the game.)
5. Like that the Falcons have volunteered to do HBO’s Hard Knocks this summer. With the franchise in near make or break mode, it should be interesting. And I’m kind of blown away that coach Mike Smith agreed to do it. He prefers very much for his work and ideas to be under the radar.