Sunday, February 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

First-year coach Greg Schiano has transformed Bucs

He thinks his team is going to win. For Greg Schiano, halfway through a season and partway through a turnaround, it is that simple.

He thinks his team is going to win. Always.

Yes, he is aware of the other team's strengths and of his team's shortcomings. He is aware of matchups and possibilities and the thickness of resumes.

Still, Schiano thinks his team is going to win because in the hours before the kickoff, he has thought that every week. Work hard enough, prepare well enough and a man manufactures his own confidence.

"Even when we weren't very good (at Rutgers), I always expected to win,'' Schiano said. "By the end of the week, if you can get them playing hard and preparing, you expect to win. I expect to win, absolutely."

Eight games in and, already, others are starting to expect the same. The Bucs have transformed from one of the most dysfunctional teams in the NFL to one of the most promising. The difference has been fast and distinctive; so, too, has the speed in which Schiano has put his fingerprints on the franchise.

Four wins, four losses, and everything has changed. Schiano has hit Tampa Bay like a Wild West sheriff determined to restore order. As a result, the Bucs are no longer a team swirling down the drain. It is one that has recaptured its moment and restored its future. It looks different. It plays different. It feels different.

Look around, and Schiano has been as impressive as any new coach in the league. Joe Philbin has done well with Miami, and everyone is touched by the story of Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians in Indianapolis. But if you saw the swill that was the Bucs franchise late last season, you probably would not trade Schiano for any of his first-year peers.

Dennis Allen? Mike Mularkey? Jeff Fisher? Could there be a better coach than Schiano to restore the professionalism, to rescue the lost athletes, to re-establish the energy?

Not likely.

"I don't think (a turnaround) has happened,'' Schiano said into the telephone.

It was late Thursday night, and Schiano was finally leaving the facility.

"I think it's halfway through the season," he said. "This league is so fickle. I'm not a naysayer. I believe in momentum and the guys feeling confident. I just know our thing is the one-game season. It serves so many purposes for me. We're trying to get our team to outprepare itself every week.''

So far, the difference is obvious. Last year's team seemed to fold at the first spot of trouble, and every game was like being buried by an avalanche. This year's team is more resilient, more focused, more competitive.

Still, coaches aren't crazy about 4-4 records. Ask Schiano his reaction to a 4-4 start, and he responds like this: "Missed opportunities.''

Washington, for instance. And New Orleans. And the Giants.

When asked the toughest thing he has had to face as coach of the Bucs, that is where Schiano starts. With the possible wins that got away.

"Those games where we were winning and you feel like you had an opportunity,'' he said. "The game where we really struggled was Dallas. We had an opportunity, but if I'm Dallas, I say we had that under control. But in the other three, we had a noticeable lead in two of them.

"Losing probably stays with me too long. It's this combination of feelings that makes you feel almost nauseous. But the thing that is good about coaching is that you need to get over it because you have to put together a game plan. As you do it, you think, 'Okay, we can get this fixed. Here's an opportunity.' "

And the best moment about being coach of the Bucs?

"I don't know if there is a single thing," he said. "It's when I see players starting to get it. I'm not just talking about X's and O's. It's when they understand what we want this team to be, what we want our identity to be. I see it happening in spurts. It's fun to watch it transform.''

No, it hasn't always been smooth. Every week, it seems as if there is a new brush fire. The kneel-down play. The calling-out-signals controversy. The injuries. The drug tests. The poll that said Schiano is the coach players least want to play for, or the one that called him a bully, or the one in which a replacement ref said he was hard to deal with.

"The things on the field don't bother me,'' Schiano said. "People can talk about what they want. Most of the people who make those comments don't know who I am. As long as the people I care about think I'm a good man, the rest of it doesn't matter."

Eight games in, and the league has learned much about Schiano. The 46-year-old is intense, and he is passionate.

Schiano? He has learned, too.

"I've learned that the skill people in the NFL don't need but an inch and they can make the play happen,'' he said. "Sometimes, they don't even need an inch. The really good ones don't miss an open opportunity.

"The two-minute drill has a lot of strategy, which I don't think people understand. I think I'm learning every day about the personnel in the NFL. Coaches know the players very well, the strengths, the weaknesses.

"The football part isn't different from college. The biggest difference are the ages of the players; from the 21-year-old rookie to the 37-year-old veteran. In college, everyone is at one stage of their life. At this level, you have to understand each guy's situation. Not at the cost of uniformity, but you have to have flexi­bility.''

Along the way, a coach has to teach. Yes, even at the NFL level.

"That's the most important thing we do,'' Schiano said. "Coaches are teachers. You're holding people accountable.''

Halfway through his first school year, it is working. The Bucs are once again a team where you notice the talent and the potential instead of the trouble and the wasted promise. Already, Schiano has hit the reset button, and you cannot help but notice Josh Freeman and Doug Martin and Mike Williams and Gerald McCoy and Mark Barron and Lavonte David and Mason Foster.

"I think they have immense potential. I really do,'' said Schiano.

"And I don't think any of them are even scratching the surface of who they can be.''

If you are talking about potential, you can add Schiano to that list. Like his players, Schiano is just getting started. Like his players, you wonder how good he might become.

Who knows? Someday, Schiano might even coach in a Super Bowl.

Check with him the night before, and he will probably believe he will win that, too.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

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