TAMPA, Fla. — NFL life allows little chance to breathe. From the front office to the coaching staff to the players, everyone is evaluated daily, no matter the task or time of year. No one escapes judgment. This is a high-risk, high-payoff lifestyle that tests the most patient of men.
Some crack, others prosper. Some find fulfillment in this rush, while others wither because of its demands.
So with the urgency understood, new Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith faces his first season with high standards of his making. He has said he wants to win now. He has said 4-12 should leave a bitter taste on the tongues of everyone at One Buc Place. He has said there’s no rebuilding in his quest to make Tampa Bay a factor once more, only a frenetic focus to climb back to the postseason for the first time since 2007.
"There’s a certain brand of football that you expected from us," Smith said in January, recalling the franchise’s better days. "You knew we’d be relentless, we would play hard, physical, but there was a brand of football that you did get from us each week. At Raymond James Stadium, it was hard for opponents to come in and win. We have gotten away from that a little bit, and it is time, as we go to the future, for us to become a relevant team again."
The mission begins in September. There are many intriguing tests to come in Smith’s first fall as the top man pacing Tampa Bay’s sideline. Of course, the NFC South provides a number of storylines: Will the Carolina Panthers repeat as division champions? Will the Atlanta Falcons recover? Will the New Orleans Saints’ offense keep humming despite losses of key weapons like running back Darren Sproles and wide receiver Lance Moore?
Beyond the division, matchups against the NFC North and AFC North will carry interest as well. Smith’s present will meet his past when the Bucs play the Chicago Bears in Week 12. Big-ticket free-agent signees defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins will face their old team, the Cincinnati Bengals, in Week 13. The Green Bay Packers, always a national draw, will make their first trip to Raymond James Stadium since 2009 in Week 16.
The schedule is set, and the evaluation is ongoing. Smith’s first season will reveal how far the Bucs have come since the trials of 2013.
Here’s a closer look (2013 records in parentheses):
WEEK 1: vs. Carolina Panthers (12-4), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Cam Newton ripped the Bucs for 221 yards passing and three total touchdowns (one rushing) in Carolina’s Week 8 visit to Raymond James Stadium last year. The game, which was a Thursday night showcase, was the Bucs’ seventh consecutive loss to begin the season and led to major questions about Greg Schiano’s future. The teams have split the last six games at Tampa Bay dating back to October 2008.
WEEK 2: vs. St. Louis Rams (7-9), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Mike Glennon knows Robert Quinn too well. The Rams defensive end had three sacks on a day when Glennon was dropped seven times in St. Louis’ 23-13 victory in Week 16 last year at the Edward Jones Dome. The Bucs have played the Rams three times since 2010, and St. Louis has won two of those meetings. Tampa Bay has been limited to 13 points in each of the past two contests.
WEEK 3: at Atlanta Falcons (4-12), Thursday, 8:25 p.m.
The Falcons caught the Bucs during better times at the Georgia Dome last year. Atlanta edged Tampa Bay 31-23 in Week 7, which was Mike Glennon’s first road game since replacing Josh Freeman behind center before Week 4. Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas had a game-high 149 yards receiving with one touchdown. But the good vibes were short-lived: Atlanta followed the result with a five-game losing streak, and it only won two more games all fall. This site is always a difficult place to play for Tampa Bay. This year will be no different.
WEEK 4: at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Bucs have lost their last four games against the Steelers, though they’ve only played three times since 2002. Last year, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time since doing so from 1998-2000. Tampa Bay has only made three trips to Pittsburgh, the last in 2006. The Steelers have outscored the Bucs a combined 79-15 in those meetings.
WEEK 5: at New Orleans Saints (11-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
So much has happened since the Bucs last appeared at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. This was the site of the last game involving Greg Schiano and former general manager Mark Dominik. And it was one to forget for anyone in a Tampa Bay uniform: Drew Brees pounded the Bucs with 381 yards passing and four touchdowns in a 42-17 rout during Week 17. The next day, a regime change was made, and little about the current team’s makeup is the same. Will different results follow? The Bucs have lost four of their last six games at New Orleans.
WEEK 6: vs. Baltimore Ravens (8-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Ravens’ streak of five consecutive playoff berths was snapped last season in trying to defend their Super Bowl title. Joe Flacco threw for a career-high 3,912 yards with 19 touchdowns, but Baltimore finished with a non-winning record for the first time since going 5-11 in 2007. The Ravens last visited the Bucs in the regular season in September 2006, and Tampa Bay lost 27-0.
WEEK 7: Bye
WEEK 8: vs. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Vikings will make a rare appearance at Raymond James Stadium. They have played in Tampa just once since 2002, a 19-13 loss in November 2008. Tampa Bay has had its way with Minnesota in previous visits. The Bucs have won six consecutive games at home over the Vikings dating back to 1998. They have won seven of eight at home in the series since 1996. Adrian Peterson is always a concern, but the Vikings must stabilize their quarterback situation to become a major threat again.
WEEK 9: at Cleveland Browns (4-12), Sunday, 1 p.m.
New coach Mike Pettine will lead the Cleveland Browns after an offseason that included an odd shakeup of the franchise’s front office. The Bucs have only played the Browns three times since 2002, but they have won each of those meetings. This was somewhat close to becoming a Greg Schiano Reunion Special. The former Bucs coach interviewed for the then-vacant Browns job last January, but he was never offered the position.
WEEK 10: vs. Atlanta Falcons (4-12), Sunday, 1 p.m.
Atlanta’s visit to Raymond James Stadium last November was one of the few breathe-easy moments in the final year of the Greg Schiano era. The Bucs routed the Falcons 41-28 in Week 11, with Atlanta depleted by injuries. Mike Glennon threw for 231 yards and two touchdowns. The result was the second of three consecutive victories for Tampa Bay. The Falcons have won three of their last five trips to Tampa dating back to January 2010.
WEEK 11: at Washington Redskins (3-13), Sunday, 1 p.m.
Who knows what Redskins team the Bucs will face in the District? Will it be a rebuilt, healthy offense with Robert Griffin III looking like the player from his breakout rookie season? Or will the decay continue under first-year coach Jay Gruden? A change in leadership, past the Mike Shanahan era, was needed after an ugly internal collapse last season. Gruden faces a daunting task managing the politics at Redskins Park. The Bucs — and the rest of Washington’s opponents — hope the circus continues.
WEEK 12: at Chicago Bears (8-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
Call it Reunion Sunday. Smith, Josh McCown and Major Wright will return to their former home in what will be one of the more memorable games of the Bucs’ season. To some, Smith’s tenure in Chicago ended too soon. His success there made him appealing for the Glazers when they turned to the former Tampa Bay linebackers coach to rebuild their franchise. There will be hype for this one. The Bucs must play disciplined.
WEEK 13: vs. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
A couple new Bucs will matchup against their old team. Johnson and Collins, important signings in free agency, will face old teammates in their new colors. Cincinnati has visited Tampa Bay just three times, the last meeting a 14-13 Bucs victory in October 2006. Tampa Bay has won six consecutive games over Cincinnati dating back to 1995.
WEEK 14: at Detroit Lions (7-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.
Ford Field was the site of the most impressive victory of the Bucs’ last season under Greg Schiano. Tampa Bay edged Detroit 24-21 behind 247 yards passing from Glennon, who added two touchdowns through the air. Bucs running back Bobby Rainey was bottled up for 35 yards on 18 carries, so Glennon showed composure in guiding Tampa Bay past a strong defense that was considered a playoff contender in Week 12. The Bucs have won five of their past six trips to Detroit dating back to 2000.
WEEK 15: at Carolina Panthers (12-4), Sunday, 1 p.m.
If recent history is any guide, this will be the year Tampa Bay leaves Charlotte pleased. Since 2010, the Bucs have alternated between wins and losses in their trips to play the Panthers. Last year’s matchup at the site, a 27-6 blowout in Carolina’s favor in Week 13, turned forgettable before halftime. The Panthers raced to a 17-6 lead at the break, and the Bucs never threatened in the second half with Mike Glennon scrambling to avoid pressure (he was sacked five times). Cam Newton finished with 263 yards passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also had a game-high 68 yards rushing.
WEEK 16: vs. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
This will be one of the marquee games at Raymond James Stadium this year. Green Bay will play here for the first time since November 2009, when the Bucs won 38-28 behind three touchdown passes from Josh Freeman. Trends favor the Bucs in this one. Dating back to 1998, Tampa Bay has won seven of eight games against Green Bay played at Raymond James Stadium. The Packers’ lone victory in the stretch happened in 2003.
WEEK 17: vs. New Orleans Saints (11-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Saints’ Week 2 visit to Raymond James Stadium last year was part of a string of early misses for the Bucs. Drew Brees led New Orleans on a five-play, 54-yard drive that resulted in Garrett Hartley’s 27-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Saints to a 16-14 victory. Tampa Bay has lost four of its last five home games against New Orleans.
You can’t go wrong picking the Pack. And with a following that knows no borders, expect Green Bay to draw plenty of green and gold to Raymond James Stadium. This could become a de-facto road contest for the Bucs.
Overall, it should be fun. Sure, the days of Warren Sapp chasing Brett Favre are long gone. Exit that pair and enter Gerald McCoy and Aaron Rodgers, two studs in their own right. A win over a proven contender like Green Bay would bode well for Smith’s project.
BEST NON-DIVISIONAL RIVAL ROAD GAME
This is easy. Smith’s return to Chicago (and to a lesser extent, McCown’s and Wright’s) is made for big, bold headlines. His 84-66 record over nine seasons there with three playoff berths and a Super Bowl appearance made him a respected figure in the game. That reputation was earned for good reason, too.
Like with most coaches, though, time took its toll on Smith’s Bears tenure. They missed the playoffs in his last two seasons there, despite a 10-6 finish in 2012. Expect Smith’s reception at his former home to be warm.
MOST DANGEROUS GAME
The Panthers manhandled the Bucs last season. There were times when Tampa Bay threatened or beat New Orleans and Atlanta, but Carolina remained an enigma thanks to Newton’s athleticism. This much is guaranteed: The Bucs’ defense will be tested again.
Both games against the Panthers last year were decided early. Tampa Bay must find a way to limit Carolina’s offense this fall or the results will be more of the same — bad.
Smith will lead the Bucs to the playoffs … just not this year. He’s too proven for Tampa Bay not to be better than the bumbling mess in 2013. The dramatic offseason overhaul shows Smith and new general manager Jason Licht understand the moment’s urgency. Winning will come in time, but expecting 4-12 to become 10-6 or better is asking too much for this roster.
Still, there will be chances to pick off wins. The NFC North was the NFL’s lone division last year in which at least one team didn’t finish with 10 victories or more. Meanwhile, the AFC North is full of questions. The Bengals closed at 11-5 last year, but they’re vulnerable. Who knows if the Steelers and Ravens will rebound? Expect the Browns to struggle again.
A near-.500 record should be the goal. Anything more would be a pleasant surprise.