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For Bucs, Lovie Smith might be free agent lure

Then-Bears coach Lovie Smith shakes hands with cornerback Charles Tillman.

Getty Images (2012)

Then-Bears coach Lovie Smith shakes hands with cornerback Charles Tillman.

Here on hiring day, there seem to be a great many reasons for a free agent to wish to go to work for the Tampa Bay Bucs.

For starters, there is money.

Oodles of it, as they say.

To a free agent, this is a very important thing, of course. You can talk all you want about geography and opportunity, but most free agents tend to gravitate toward the highest stack of cash. That's the reason so many of the best free agents seem to wind up with the worst teams. Both sides can always regret it later.

But there are other reasons the Bucs should be an intriguing destination for a free agent. For instance, there are good players here but not so many that playing time would be difficult to come by. There is an envied playing surface. There is no state income tax. And there are those brand new uniforms that are sure to make everyone feel like a Power Ranger.

Most of all, there is Lovie Smith.

For the Bucs, he's going to be a huge advantage.

Just imagine.

A coach for whom most players want to play. A guy who inspires loyalty. A man worth impressing. Yeah, that could be big.

It is difficult to measure just how significant Smith's impact might be for the Bucs as they attempt to fill their holes in the days to come. But leadership is always important. Players want money, sure, but they also want a steady voice pointing out a new direction. They want someone they can trust to make sure their careers don't fade into the bottom part of the league standings.

It doesn't do a lot of good to pick on Greg Schiano, the old coach, but it seems fairly evident by now that his players didn't particularly enjoy playing for him. It was hard to exhale around Schiano. He was such a micromanager, always fussing about the shape of the pasta and the temperature of the room and the wrinkles in the socks. He worried about so many little things that he could wear a player out. It was like playing for Sgt. Hulka from the movie Stripes while he looked for dust on your boots.

Eventually, word of that gets out around the league, and it alters the way a player views a destination. Yes, if Schiano was still in charge, the Bucs still could have pursued free agents the way they pursued Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks and Dashon Goldson over the past couple of years, but the feeling is they would have to vastly overpay their targets to come.

For the Bucs, that has often been the case. Tampa Bay didn't chase many players during the Tony Dungy years, but it did land Brad Johnson, Simeon Rice and, through a trade, Keyshawn Johnson.

Jon Gruden was a guy you figured some players in the league might want to play for, but after Charlie Garner and Todd Steussie, the Bucs seemed to lose interest in free agents. To Raheem Morris, free agency was something other teams did.

Now, there is Smith. With him in charge, perhaps the Bucs will only have to overpay by a little.

Oh, it isn't just up to Smith. As usual, it is the Glazers who will spend the money, and it is new general manager Jason Licht who will set the targets. A reminder: Last year in Arizona, Licht worked with general manager Steve Keim toward one of the best offseasons in the league. They brought in defensive end John Abraham, who had 11½ sacks, quarterback Carson Palmer and linebacker Karlos Dansby, and things changed.

Still, Smith can be the closer in the Bucs' deals. He can be like a college head coach on the final week of recruiting, swooping in to push a recruit over the edge.

After all, his former players in Chicago still rave about Smith. There is a humble, confident nature to Smith. Players are going to believe in him. And if the money is close, faith in Smith can be the swing vote.

Oh, free agency is still a huge gamble, of course. It is a minefield full of bad choices where careers have gone to die. Remember Albert Haynesworth (who almost came here). Remember Alvin Harper, who did. Remember Jerry Porter and Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings, players who left good situations to chase dollar signs? All of them wound up being worth a nickel on the dollar.

That's why most teams, in most years, prefer to build through the draft. It's cheaper. It's safer.

But when a franchise has drafted as poorly as this one has over the past decade, it is forced to fill some of its holes with free agents. Sometimes, those are big-splash players. Sometimes, they are less noticeable players who are brought in to fill a role.

This year, the Bucs have only five draft picks. If you're honest, they have a lot more than five holes. They could use a defensive end and a linebacker and a defensive tackle and a couple of offensive linemen and another wide receiver and a tight end and, maybe, a quarterback.

And so they have to pick wisely. They have to find those free agents who don't ease up once they get the big money. They have to find mercenaries who have not lost the team concept. They have to find players who fit the scheme.

Much of that will be up to Smith, too. If he's going to change the way you feel about the Bucs, it will happen on game day.

Along the way, however, Smith can convince a few workers to step onto the boat.

That way, maybe it won't sink.

For Bucs, Lovie Smith might be free agent lure 03/07/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 8, 2014 9:54pm]
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