Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs according to Lovie Smith

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TAMPA

His eyes are weary, like a man who has stared at too many game tapes over too many late evenings. Still, they can see into the future.

The eyes of Lovie Smith do not blink, and they do not blur. He stares across the days to come, and he can see success. He can see touchdowns and defensive stands. He can see victories. He can see excitement. He can see relevance.

And no, he does not think it will take as much time as many others believe.

Smith, the head coach of the Bucs, stands in a hallway late Saturday afternoon, moments after the Bucs completed their draft. For the record, he likes the way that looked, too. He stands, his back to the wall, and talks about the reshaping of a roster and the reassessing of a franchise.

He believes.

You better believe that he believes.

"Every year, there is a team that makes a leap," Smith said. "I think we've done all that we can do to this point. We've done what we needed to do to be a good football team this season.

"This is a good-looking football team. It looks a lot better than on Jan. 1 when we started."

Ah, but what does that mean? If you follow the Bucs, how many strides forward can you really expect from the four-victory, last-in-the-league-in-offense mess you saw a year ago? Can the Bucs be an 8-8 team? Can they win the division?

Smith shakes his head.

"I don't want to make any statements on numbers," he said. "For us, it's about playing our best football we can with the talent we have."

With that, you moan out loud. That's a safe place for a coach, to talk about playing to potential, but it's a bit vague for the common fan. How does it translate?

"Okay," Smith said, grinning. "When I talk to our football team, do you think I'm going, 'Hey, guys, we can go 8-8?' No, that's not what I'm saying. My original statement was for us to become a relevant team again. And what's relevant?"

Making a run at the playoffs, you suggest.

"You have to start from there," he said. "We want to win all of our home games. We want to put a good product on the field. We want it to be like the old days where teams said. 'Oh, man, we've got to go to Tampa this week. It's tough going down there. We know it's going to be a hard-fought game.' We want people to talk like that again.

"We have the same goal as everyone. It's to win games. To win our division. To win the Super Bowl. When does that happen? We're going to start chipping away and pounding away until it happens."

Say this for Smith. He doesn't believe in the word "rebuilding." Say it to him, and he looks at you strangely and asks for a definition, because he swears it is not in his vocabulary.

Perhaps that is why, along with general manager Jason Licht, the Bucs have become quick-change artists. Not since the first Bucs team have so many new faces come in to start. As many as 10 new players, almost half, could be in the starting lineup.

"To me, it's simple," Smith said. "If you don't like what you have right now, you have to make changes. Which we did."

The result of that is that this team will have to mesh quickly — yes, Smith says that can happen — and build its chemistry in a hurry. Still, Smith says he likes what he sees.

"It would be hard for you to convince Josh McCown that we're not going to win," Smith said. "It would be hard for you to convince Gerald McCoy we're not going to win."

This much is clear. This will not be Greg Schiano's Bucs. The entire roster has had reconstructive surgery. Every unit has had reinforcements. True, there are still some shortcomings, but it does seem significantly better than last year's team. Yes, there is some intrigue there.

Smith ticks the positions off, one by one. He talks about this player and that one. Yes, you can win with those corners. The linebackers are good, especially with Lavonte David, who he says is as good as any weakside linebacker in the league. He calls McCoy the most dominating inside lineman in the NFL. He says Michael Johnson was the top player on the market.

"If you're the head coach, wouldn't you have a little confidence in that group?" Smith said. "I would."

Then he talks about his offense. He talks about the pieces on a line that still has to come together. He believes in McCown at quarterback more than anyone else in Tampa Bay. He receivers are scholarship guys. The tight end, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, was the top tight end on the team's draft boards, and it wasn't close. He likes the running back stable.

"So how are you feeling? As a head football coach, I feel a whole lot better. I have a little more bounce in my step about what we're going to do," he said.

Oh, McCown still has tons to prove. Receiver Mike Evans and Seferian-Jenkins are rookies. If Carl Nicks can't come back, the guards are a question mark. The depth could be better.

Still, you try to see what Smith sees. You try to see the first steps of a team on the rise. You try to see the early stages of success.

Frankly, it will look better than anything you have seen from the Bucs in a while.

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