TAMPA, Fla. — This must be right. This must be different than what happened after a hope-for-the-best hire (Raheem Morris) and a you’re-not-Chip-Kelly-but-you-will-do one (Greg Schiano).
This must be a home run, and not the inside-the-park variety.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lived in the Land of the Irrelevant far too long. Frankly, that’s inexcusable in a league where 4-12 one year can become 10-6 with a division title the next. Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles.
Are you loving Lovie Smith yet? Are you enjoying this New Year’s resolution by the Bucs to move past the drama, the sorry results on the scoreboard, to become more fit to compete in the NFC South and beyond? Smith, Tampa Bay’s January savior, better justify that optimism with a team built to win now.
Now, the pressure’s on the new man about town. Credit the Glazers for locking up their guy, for working fast enough behind closed doors after passing out pink slips to Schiano and former general manager Mark Dominik on Monday. After an 11-21 black eye under that pair the past two seasons, the bosses had seen enough of the debacle, the silliness on and off the field. It was time to move on.
Smith offers something Schiano, and Morris before him, never did. Mainly, the resume for the Bucs’ new coach doesn’t include a giant blank spot under "NFL head-coaching experience" before his arrival.
This is no flyer. On paper, hiring Smith looks like a move that could soar.
Still, keep in mind Smith was no King Midas in Chicago. He was 5-11 his first season in 2004. He went 7-9 in 2007 and 2009. After the 2012 campaign, general manager Phil Emery fired him for missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.
Smith grew stale after nine years — but not before he went 81-63 in the regular season with an appearance in Super Bowl XLI. That’s better than the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Morris and Schiano eras.
Besides, Smith will find the bar to be a few feet lower on Dale Mabry Highway than it is by Lake Michigan. His seasons in Chicago of 13-3, 11-5, 9-7 — heck, even 8-8 — look mighty good when you consider the clown show that is the Bucs’ recent past: Losing records in four of the past five years, six years without a playoff berth, three different coaches since 2008.
Bring back a winner, or at least a team that competes for something meaningful in December, other than a high draft pick. Bring back consistency.
With Smith, there’s chance for rebirth. He knows the terrain, having served under Tony Dungy as the Bucs’ linebackers coach from 1996-2000. He knows what it takes to survive in the NFC, having spent his entire NFL coaching career in the conference (he also was the St. Louis Rams’ defensive coordinator from 2001-2003). He knows this will be a long climb back to contention, but he took over the Bears after they suffered two losing seasons, and he lifted them into the playoffs in Year No. 2.
So there’s promise, but there are questions about Smith’s supporting cast. Reportedly, former California coach Jeff Tedford will be his offensive coordinator, even though the former college headman has never coached in the NFL.
Can the duo revive an offense that ranked 30th in scoring with 18 points per game? What will they do at quarterback?
Reportedly, Rod Marinelli could become Smith’s defensive coordinator, reuniting the two after they spent time together on staffs in Tampa Bay and Chicago. Marinelli was the Bucs’ defensive line coach from 1996-2005. He was the Bears’ defensive line coach/defensive coordinator from 2009-2012.
Can the duo lift a defense that includes Gerald McCoy, Darrelle Revis, Lavonte David and Dashon Goldson to another level, a playoff-worthy mark? What will they do to ensure that Drew Brees and Cam Newton don’t rip this unit again?
This is the start. So much about this era-to-come can go in either direction, toward the clouds or down a cliff. But new possibility, new breath, is a refreshing turn from the norm when discussing the pewter and red, lifeless for so long.
No longer is the dialogue about controversy, the latest loss, another Sunday letdown. It’s about optimism, about fresh starts and hope.
Brighter days seem to be here, and now it’s Lovie’s job to prove it’s okay to love these Bucs again.