TAMPA — It didn't start with Jameis Winston. It won't end with him, either. Lovie Smith has a history of gambling on a few players capable of creating mayhem on and off the field.
Since the last preseason alone, the Bucs have looked closely at signing, trading for or drafting Richie Incognito, Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson and Winston, who despite several tawdry events at Florida State could become the face of the franchise if the Bucs use their No. 1 overall draft pick on him next month.
"Hopefully the core of who I am and what I believe is about second chances," the Bucs coach said. "You talk about perception versus reality. The perception is out there. For me to do my job and us to do our jobs, we have to look at everything ourselves. … We look at all available players. Some you say yes, some you say no.
"But I believe in second chances if a guy deserves one, especially with young people. I just don't think you can give young people a death sentence for one thing that they've done. You do your research, and if there's … a series of things you don't like, that's different. But you go through that process. We will continue to go through that process. If someone is available, we're going to look at it ourselves and make decisions as we go."
While coach of the Bears, Smith drafted Texas RB Cedric Benson fourth overall in 2005 despite his two arrests in college, once for possession of marijuana and the other for criminal trespass. The Bears released Benson in 2008 after his second alcohol-related arrest in five weeks.
Smith stuck by DT Tank Johnson after he was sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge. In '06, police found unlicensed firearms in Johnson's suburban Chicago house, and he was jailed for two months. Johnson was suspended for eight games, and the Bears cut him in June 2007 after a highly publicized traffic stop in Arizona, even though he was not charged.
Smith believes he can impact players' lives beyond the field, and his relationships with former players is proof. But he says some behavior has always been unacceptable. "Domestic violence has always been at the top," Smith said. "It's not okay to touch a woman. … We all know that. We know what's right and wrong. You don't need training like that. I will continue to coach our men about that."
FREE AGENT MAKEOVER: Having cut their losses with DT Anthony Collins, DE Michael Johnson and QB Josh McCown — at great expense — Smith and GM Jason Licht altered their approach to free agency this year. They targeted mostly second-tier players they know fit the Tampa 2 scheme. DB Chris Conte, DE Henry Melton, LB Bruce Carter and CB Sterling Moore have either played for Smith, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli or both.
"Sometimes you make one mistake, it just didn't work out and you compound it by feeling like you have to stay the course no matter what," Smith said. "Last year we were trying to improve a ball club without having gone through a season with them and knowing what we had. With Henry and Conte, we had our hands on them. And then with Bruce and Sterling, it does help when you've been in the system."