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Jones: For Lovie Smith, Year 3 is a must-win situation

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith is seen in the fourth quarter of a football game between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015. LOREN ELLIOTT  | Times

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith is seen in the fourth quarter of a football game between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015. LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

TAMPA

There's a digital clock in the locker room at One Buc Place that counts down the days, hours and seconds to the next Bucs game. With another last-place season crashing to an end Sunday, that clock is now off.

Time to turn on another one.

Coach Lovie Smith is now on the clock. He has exactly one year to fix this thing.

What does that mean, exactly?

No more six-win seasons. No more baby steps. No more long-term rebuilding projects.

Time to win.

Not the Super Bowl. Not even the division. But time to take the next meaningful step.

In the next year, the Bucs need to show tangible improvement. A winning record in 2016 would be proof that the team is getting better. A playoff spot would be even more proof. If that doesn't happen, exactly one year from right now, it will be time to look for a new coach.

Smith just finished his second season as coach of the Bucs. His record in Tampa Bay is 8-24.

Cleveland just fired Mike Pettine after he went 10-22 over two seasons. Philadelphia unloaded Chip Kelly after Kelly went 16-15 over the past two seasons. The Giants' Tom Coughlin was pushed out after going 12-20 over the past two seasons, and he had two Super Bowl victories on his resume.

In other words, 8-24 will get you fired in a lot of places. In today's win-now, no-patience-for-losing NFL, Smith is lucky to still have a job.

"You're always judged on your record,'' Smith said. "Our record isn't good enough right now.''

But Smith also deserves the wiggle room he has had so far.

He gets a pass for the first season when the Bucs went 2-14. He didn't have a decent quarterback or offensive coordinator, and he was taking over a mess left behind by the previous regime of GM Mark Dominik and coach Greg Schiano. If the team Smith took over were any good, it wouldn't have changed coaches.

Smith also gets the benefit of the doubt this year. He essentially was starting from scratch with a rookie quarterback and, to be fair, the team did get a little better.

At one point, the Bucs were 6-6 and in the playoff conversation. To be honest, it didn't really seem as if the Bucs were serious playoff threats, but as Smith points out, "You are what your record says you are.''

The Bucs deserved to be 6-6 after 12 games and they deserved to finish 6-10 after falling apart in the final month. Still, six wins is an improvement from two, and the Bucs do possess the most important piece of any successful team's puzzle: a franchise quarterback. Jameis Winston does appear to have the makings of being that quarterback.

"We've made a lot of progress,'' Smith said, "but we still have a ways to go.''

Bottom line: that's it as far as patience and understanding. Even Smith understands that.

"I don't think any of us can say we've met our expectations,'' Smith said. "We have high hopes. When we took over the franchise, we knew that you just can't build a program overnight. We'd like to have a quick fix, (but) that just wasn't part of the process. When you get to 6-6 in a season, it makes you think, maybe we're a little bit farther along and we can get it done. But in the end, we weren't quite there. We're not where we want to be.''

The troubling part is how little the Bucs have improved defensively under a defensive-minded head coach.

The numbers suggest that the defense wasn't all that bad. Tampa Bay finished 10th in yards allowed. But such a number can be deceiving when opponents have big leads and spend the fourth quarter milking clocks instead of piling on yards. A more telling number is points allowed, and the Bucs were 26th in that department.

Plus, the eye test tells you that the defense was lousy.

Other than tackle Gerald McCoy and linebackers Lavonte David and rookie Kwon Alexander, the defense was severely devoid of talent. It has gone two years with no pass rushers and a horrible secondary that has had a revolving door of rejects from Smith's past.

"I think it's safe to say we didn't play as well as we need to in the secondary,'' Smith said.

The Bucs have spent the past two seasons trying to put together an offense. But Smith has had a big say in personnel and has done almost nothing to improve the talent or results on defense.

This offseason should be about defense, whether it's through free agency or the draft.

That's not all.

On offense, the Bucs need to re-sign running back Doug Martin. They might need to replace lineman Logan Mankins. They need to get receiver Mike Evans' head (and hands) on straight. They need more from tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. They need to find a way to keep receiver Vincent Jackson healthy.

On defense, they need more from everyone not named McCoy, David or Alexander. They can start with a pass-rusher and a lock-down cornerback, though those guys aren't easy to come across.

And the special teams, anything but special, need loads of help.

"Eventually, we're going to get there,'' Smith said. "It's a process that you go through. And normally, you can't skip any steps along the way. We haven't skipped any steps, but we realize in Year 3, we need to see the results of everything we've been doing.''

If they don't see the results over the next year, someone else should be charge of finding them.

Jones: For Lovie Smith, Year 3 is a must-win situation 01/04/16 [Last modified: Monday, January 4, 2016 10:51pm]
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