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New energy puts Bucs on right course

As a team, there is a better feel. These days, the Bucs feel fresher, newer, re-energized.

The new head coach is impressive. The new general manager seems efficient. The old owners, once again, have opened their wallets. There are new players, and new attitudes, and new ideas.

Ah, but are the Bucs good yet?

That is the question that counts, of course. Even as you scan across all the new reinforcements with all of their fresh millions, the question is not if the Bucs are better — they are — but how much better?

Are they good enough to get to eight wins?

To 10?

To the postseason, finally?

This is the proving part. It is one thing to add Josh McCown and Michael Johnson to the depth chart, it is one thing to envision the finest possible results for Alterraun Verner and Evan Dietrich-Smith, but winning on the field is a harder proposition. After all, this team won only four games last season, and it is hard to get healthy in a hurry.

It is impossible not to like the boldness with which the Bucs have operated. Say this for GM Jason Licht and coach Lovie Smith, they are men of conviction. They do not judge resumes, they judge performances.

For instance, they look at McCown and his 38 career starts, and they see the answer at quarterback.

They look at Johnson and his 3½ sacks last season, and they think he could be the best pass-rushing end here since Simeon Rice.

They look at left tackle Anthony Collins and his seven starts from a year ago, and they see an upgrade over Donald Penn.

They look at Clinton McDonald, who was cut by the Seahawks last preseason, and they see a pass-rushing presence at defensive tackle.

They look at Verner, whose man coverage ability has been questioned, and they see a perfect fit at cornerback.

Will they be right on all of these players? The history of free agency suggests they won't. But is McCown an upgrade over Mike Glennon? Yes, he is. Will Johnson apply more pressure than any of the Bucs who played defensive end last year? Yes, he will. Will Collins be more consistent than Penn? Yes again.

Here's something else to like about the moves. Of the core positions on the field — quarterback, right defensive end, left tackle and cornerback — they addressed them all.

Yes, the team still needs more players, which tells you about the size of the crater that was here. As Smith says, however, the Bucs are not done yet. They still might add a wide receiver, especially if he can return kicks. Maybe an offensive guard. Maybe another linebacker.

There may yet be another wave of free agency, provided the salary cap holds out. Obviously, there is help coming from the draft.

But, yeah, you have to like what you see from the Bucs. They are, at least, intriguing. They are, at least, interesting.

Are they better? Yes, probably with every unit except the secondary, where most onlookers would agree that cornerback Darrelle Revis is a better player than Verner. But at $16 million, Revis was an awfully expensive toy for this franchise. Think of it as owning a Lamborghini while living in a trailer park. The payments were just too pricey.

What a dreadful deal Revis turned out to be for the Bucs. Basically, they gave up a first-round pick, a fourth-round pick and $16 million (the original price of the franchise itself) for a guy to rehab at their facility.

As rotten deals go, this one is going to be remembered up there with the Booker Reese trade and the Bo Jackson nonsigning. Basically, Revis, the human ATM, collected $4 million per victory while with the Bucs.

Instead, the team took that money and sprinkled it across several positions. Will it work out? We'll see. Tampa Bay has Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Green Bay and Chicago on this season's schedule.

Still, this free agent haul, along with players such as Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy, Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson, make you think of the possibilities.

Johnson, for instance, is an interesting talent. You hope he's the real deal, because the Bucs have spent most of their history in pursuit of a pass rusher. In the beginning, there was Lee Roy Selmon, and he was great. And in the good old days, there was Rice, and he was very good.

Except for that, however, the Bucs have started a series of forgettable, interchangeable guys named Ned. They have drafted nine players in the first round who ended up at defensive end, and they have traded two other first-round draft picks for defensive ends.

And all they have gotten is Ron Holmes and Eric Curry and Keith McCants and Regan Upshaw and Gaines Adams and the rest of them. They have been through Wally Chambers and Dexter Manley.

You hope Johnson is different. He'll tell you that he played better last year, when he had only 3½ sacks, than the year before, when he had 11½. And Bengals coaches did grade him out at 33 pressures. Still, a defensive end has to get the quarterback on the ground. If he can get to, say, 7½ sacks, which would be his average over the past two years, then the Bucs have a chance.

At this point, I would put the Bucs' over-under for the coming season at eight wins. That means they'll be twice as good. But, yeah, they have more work to do.

Are they better? Yes, they are. No doubt about it.

Are they good yet? We'll see.

Still, it feels better. They feel closer.

They feel … possible.

New energy puts Bucs on right course 03/14/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 15, 2014 7:44pm]
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