Bucs embracing urgency, not false bravado, under Lovie Smith
If the first six months after Lovie Smith's hire offered idealistic visions of what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can be, these humid nights in late July and early August serve as a grounding moment. Training camp is a time when stars rise, surprises emerge and bubble players fight to see September.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Keith Lewis, left, intercepts a pass intended for wide receiver Louis Murphy Jr. during training camp.
Chris O'Meara / AP
By Andrew Astleford
TAMPA, Fla. -- If the first six months after Lovie Smith's hire offered idealistic visions of what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can be, these humid nights in late July and early August serve as a grounding moment. Training camp is a time when stars rise, surprises emerge and bubble players fight to see September.
Urgency, not idealism, stands as the dominant theme.
Gone are the hours for sugarcoated images of Smith hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of his self-proclaimed "Destination: Phoenix" mission. That's cute talk reserved for pre-training-camp news conferences, but the Bucs and their competition are long past the point of dreaming just for the sake of dreaming.
The truth is revealed in sweat on those grass fields behind One Buc Place. Nine practices into life under Smith, with much more to learn, the Bucs are optimistic in their foundation but understand the distance they must travel.
"I think that we have a good leader in Lovie," Bucs offensive tackle Demar Dotson said Monday. "That's where it starts at, with a great leader that's able to lead this football team. So right there, you've got a good foundation. But coaches don't play on Sundays."
In a game defined by structure and order, Smith has delivered both to Tampa Bay since his hire in January, though it's difficult now to tell what his influence means for the Bucs in 2014, especially since they remain four days away from their first preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In a game defined by managing expectations, aiming high but not becoming crushed by false hope, Smith provides reason to consider that eight or more victories are possible this year because of his reputation, though so many questions remain.
Yet it's this yin-yang existence that will make the Bucs intriguing this fall, if nothing else, because their season can go in so many ways as they stare at the possibilities. It's as if they gaze toward a black void before them, with multiple paths leading to unknown outcomes: Success or struggle with quarterback Josh McCown; success or struggle with a questionable offensive line; success or struggle with a re-tooled secondary and defensive line.
"I can't predict anything," Bucs linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "I know our defense is shoring up a lot of things, and I think our offense is a little more talented than we were last year. But that doesn't mean anything. We could lose every game. The team can look a certain way in preseason and then come out and not do anything during the season. So we've just got to keep building on these days and on these practices and keep putting these things together. I think our defense looks well. Our offense is playing solid. And we've got to keep putting these things together."
The Bucs will only do so with a complete buy-in of Smith and his methods, a development that will show respect has been earned when it occurs in full.
A major discussion point since the winter has been the instant credibility Smith offers. The Glazers, of course, understood his history when hiring him to fix their franchise, and seemingly any rejection of Smith's approach by players would reveal a ridiculous lack of awareness. Though the Bucs' problems last year went deeper than former coach Greg Schiano alone, his locker room's rejection of him was understood because Schiano, through some of his strange methods, seemed to lack respect for his players as professionals and grown men.
Smith won't make the same mistake.
The quest for mutual respect has progressed quicker under Smith, who cut his teeth in various defensive roles before coaching the Chicago Bears from 2004 to 2012. Schiano was viewed with skepticism inside and outside One Buc Place, fairly or unfairly, in part because he never achieved anything remarkable as an NFL coach, in part because he failed to change his management style in a sustained way in 2013 before and after crap hit the fan: The Josh Freeman drama, the MRSA cases, the 0-8 start, the Murphy's Law feeling to life Monday through Sunday.
"I'm not surprised," Smith said of players buying into his ways. "Initially, when I met the players, I got that. 'What do we need to do to get that (winning feeling), to get it back?' Everything we've asked them to do along the way, they've done it. And they haven't questioned anything. So, no, it hasn't surprised. But it's early in the game, still, for us. We have so far to go. (We're) pleased with where we are, but we have so far to go."
That distance, and the considerable task of closing it, makes Smith's job hard in the upcoming months, a time when the "Destination: Phoenix" talk should be shelved for more realistic goals like finishing with at least six victories and climbing from the NFC South cellar. The start of training camp has served as a splash of cold water to the face, a dose of reality that's healthy and necessary to begin anew.
"We've gotten better every single day," Bucs offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford said. "And like I said, they've consumed a lot of information. They've done a really good job. I think we looked a little tired today. You can see we've been practicing hard and long here. But I'm really pleased with the progress we're making and anxious to start getting into a game plan."
In time, game plans under Smith will be devised, games will be played, players will be judged and a final 53-man roster will be constructed. A winter and summer of rebirth will give way to a fall of ... something ... and the Bucs' new coach will earn a history here to complement what he preaches.
For now, in these sticky summer evenings, there's hope but controlled optimism about the future.
For now, with Smith's Bucs having proven nothing, caution instead of blind belief that playoffs and Super Bowls are coming is the proper way to go about life.
Urgency, not false bravado, is how champions are made.