TAMPA — Gerald McCoy wants to please the man upstairs. When it comes to football, that could be coach Lovie Smith, general manager Jason Licht or the rest of the front office located on the second floor of One Buc Place. It's where expectations for the defensive tackle this season have been unfurled like the three-story banner of his likeness hanging at Raymond James Stadium.
"I've been asked by the owners, the head coach, the GM to take it to another level and to lead this team, and that's all I'm trying to do," McCoy said. "In the past, I was asked to lead, but it's a different type of leadership now. Coach kind of put it on my back. I kind of asked him to. You can put it on my back. I can handle it."
McCoy, 26, is coming off consecutive Pro Bowl seasons in which he led the Bucs with a combined 15½ sacks. But with Smith, a defensive-minded coach who is bringing the Tampa 2 scheme back to its adoptive hometown, this should be McCoy's best year and he is not bashful about telling him that.
"We've talked. Everyone has talked an awful lot about Gerald McCoy, and we should," Smith said. "Very seldom do I make the statement, 'best at,' but to me, he's the best at his position in the league. That standard — I'm always talking to Gerald about that. 'Gerald, you can't blend in, you can't be gray. You have to stand out. Lead us.' And the great players accept that challenge."
No Bucs player — maybe none in the NFL — had a more impressive preseason than McCoy. On his first play from scrimmage, he exploded into the Jaguars backfield and dropped running back Jordan Todman for a 5-yard loss. In 14 series, or roughly the duration of a single game, McCoy had six tackles, three for a loss, two quarterback hits, one sack and a forced fumble.
Since becoming the third overall pick by the Bucs out of Oklahoma in the 2010 draft, McCoy has played in three defensive schemes, but none has taken advantage of his explosive quickness off the snap like the system Smith installed.
"Does it look like I've been doing any kind of thinking in the preseason?" McCoy asked. "I'm just getting off the ball. That's the joy of it. I have the least amount of assignments in the field. Take your God-given gifts and use them. Every play is a pass you trample the run on the way to the quarterback. I mean, that's freedom. You can't ask for more than that."
Of course, McCoy knows about failure. He tore the biceps muscle in each arm and landed on injured reserve each of his first two pro seasons. Since joining the Bucs, McCoy has only experienced one winning record (10-6 in 2010) and has never reached the playoffs.
"That journey, it makes you," McCoy said. "It's not about what happens, it's about how you react to what happens. There's a lot of responsibility getting drafted that high. A lot of people depend on you. I knew as long as my teammates kept believing with me and the guys upstairs kept believing in me and I had God with me, I was going to be okay."
Today, it's hard to imagine McCoy being any happier. He has the defense he wanted, the head coach he needed and will have earned $55 million by the time 2014 ends. The Bucs already have begun talks on an extension in hopes of preventing him from becoming a free agent after the season. With Texans defensive end J.J. Watt signing a six-year, $100 million contract this week, well, let's just say McCoy's next contract will make his rookie deal seem like chump change.
Then there is his family. He married his high school sweetheart, Ebony, last year and they have four children, including twins — a boy, Gerald, and a girl, Germany — who were born less than two weeks before training camp.
"My wife has been incredible," McCoy said. "As far as me, I've got to adjust my sleeping habits."
Because of McCoy and an improved defense, the rest of the league had better not sleep on the Bucs.
"There's no turning back as far as being a leader now," McCoy said. "I have no choice. I'm on the stadium extremely huge this year. You don't want to take it for granted because people would dream to be the face of a franchise."