TAMPA — Bucs general manager Jason Licht could have bobbed and weaved, or ducked the question all together: Just how good is this team?
Since Licht and coach Lovie Smith are entering their first training camp in Tampa Bay and trying to turn around a 4-12 club, nobody would be surprised if they preached patience or even asked for a one-year grace period.
But instead, on the eve of players reporting to training camp, Licht said Wednesday that he believes the Bucs could go from worst to first in the NFC South.
"It's crazy," Licht said. "We'll look back at what we've added and … I'm legitimately excited and feel like we have a chance to compete for the division title. I really do.
"You would think, with a first-year head coach and a first-year general manager … we would both have a pass if we wanted to say, you know, I think we need some more time to turn this thing around. But that's not what we think. We think we can make a run at this thing this year. We feel we've got some major pieces in place to do that."
The most important piece might be at quarterback, where 35-year-old Josh McCown will try to resurrect his career as an NFL starter after throwing 13 touchdowns and one interception in five starts for the Bears last year. The Bucs are hoping McCown will be the second coming of Rich Gannon, who went to four straight Pro Bowls after joining Oakland at age 34. Since John Elway, who won back-to-back Super Bowls for the Broncos in 1997-98 at age 37 and 38, the Bucs' 34-year-old Brad Johnson is the oldest passer to win the NFL title.
"So you're telling me he's going to have to be one in a million," Licht said. "But when you talk to Josh, he apparently hasn't been told any of these things. He's one of the more confident — but not cocky — guys I've ever been around, and you just believe in him. He thinks he's 25 and that he's one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. His confidence bleeds into everybody. These offensive linemen love him, and you know how big that is. They will fight for him.
"Of course you want everybody to get on the same page and click, and that takes all the timing with the offensive linemen, with the wide receivers and the quarterback. But that's what camp is for. Because we feel like we have really strong leadership on offense, that's what gives us confidence. I've been part of teams that didn't have any leaders.''
Licht said all 89 players are expected to report to training camp this morning, although it remains to be seen if anyone will not be cleared to practice Friday.
Most eyes will be on guard Carl Nicks, who has played in nine games the past two seasons. Nicks, 29, missed the entire offseason program recovering from surgery on his foot for MRSA, a procedure he says led to nerve damage. The seven-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowl player has passed all previous physicals, but his conditioning is not ideal and he might need extra time before he practices.
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The only player who might start the preseason on the physically unable to perform list is former Cardinals defensive end Ronald Talley, according to his agent. Other players, such as safety Dashon Goldson, could be limited in practice.
Rookies will play a big part this season, especially on offense. First-round pick Mike Evans (hamstring) at receiver and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (foot) missed most of the offseason workouts but could be used liberally.
"That will be an interesting thing to watch," Licht said. "Mike has the right mind-set. He's not putting huge expectations on himself. He's not coming out here saying, 'I'm going to be a Pro Bowl receiver this year.' He's got Pro Bowl ability and a great future. But what did Calvin Johnson do as a rookie? He had 48 catches. I'm not asking people to be patient with it, but I'm just saying he doesn't have to have 1,500 yards receiving in his first year.
"I'm excited to see what Seferian-Jenkins can do. He missed a lot and has to catch up a little. But the tight end position is a good one. Brandon Myers is a proven player. Tim Wright did some great things. We have some good personnel groupings there.
"Like I said, I'm really excited."