TAMPA, Fla. — Enough what-ifs. The time for talk is over. Finally, all the sneak peeks at what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can be under coach Lovie Smith will give way to cold, hard results Sunday.
Will the Bucs like what they see?
They should. The bar is low, after all. This is a franchise that last appeared in the playoffs after the 2007 season. They won four or fewer games in three of the past five years. There have been pains and plenty of losing and enough strange twists off the field to make anyone’s head spin.
A turn toward more pleasing results should begin this year.
Smith offers instant credibility, of course. That has been pointed out over and over since his hire in January, but everything about this Bucs season is built on the observation. It can’t be overlooked.
No more questions about an unproven defensive assistant (Raheem Morris). No more wondering if a hard-edge college leader can find success in his first try as an NFL head coach (Greg Schiano). No more cringing and hoping for the best with unproven faces on the sideline.
Yes, Smith is a proven commodity. There’s all the winning with the Chicago Bears. There’s all the playoff experience. There’s all the history with the Bucs early in his career as a linebackers coach. So much about this hire seems right.
Now, it’s time for the first steps to be taken in an anticipated era.
"Everything we’ve done up until this point has been to put the best possible product on the football field this week," Smith said Monday. "Carolina is here. Guys are excited."
After a dark 2013, the Bucs have reason to be excited. Their task is to keep the light alive.
Here’s a preseason review and a closer look at the Bucs’ upcoming season before opening against the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.
The best development came at the end. The Bucs’ acquisition of six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins on Aug. 26 was a major coup for Smith and general manager Jason Licht. Presumably, Mankins will start at left guard and be a major upgrade from what was seen during the preseason with Oniel Cousins and Patrick Omameh.
Outside of Mankins, the Bucs’ top defense was a big highlight. Tackle Gerald McCoy was stellar in producing six tackles and one sack in three games. He could have a career season if he continues his progress. Look for linebacker Lavonte David to be another fixture within Smith’s scheme and produce a dominant year. The defense could rise to elite levels under their leadership.
"You have to have that talk," Smith said. "As I told our front seven out there (Monday), you talk to anybody in the country, and they’re going to talk about Carolina’s front seven, their front four. And they should. They had what, 60 sacks? They have great personnel, they play hard every down. I mean, that’s what everyone else is saying. For our guys, yes, we want to move in that position."
Meanwhile, there was little to be optimistic about on the offensive side of the ball. But rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins preformed well in training camp and had four catches for 54 yards in the preseason. Wide receiver Mike Evans had five catches for 96 yards, and wide receiver Louis Murphy had eight catches for 99 yards. Perhaps the Bucs will have multiple receiving threats this season beyond Vincent Jackson, after all.
The offensive line was an eyesore throughout August. It remains to be seen if Mankins will help cure most of the ills at the guard position. Still, he’s only one man on the line, and others within the group must pick up their games to give quarterback Josh McCown a fighting chance in the pocket.
Beyond the offensive line, depth should be a concern. It became clear quickly why starters had earned their jobs. Tampa Bay’s backups left much to be desired throughout the preseason, and this Bucs season could be derailed fast if they sustain a serious injury to one of their stars, especially on defense.
Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford’s absence should be a concern. He missed the Bucs’ last preseason game because of an unknown medical procedure. Smith said Tedford visited with the coaching staff last weekend, but it remains unknown when the first-time NFL coach will return to the Bucs full-time. A prolonged absence would be worrisome as Tampa Bay transitions to a new offense.
"He’s getting better, (and he) stopped through this weekend," Smith said. "We’re taking our time with him. Again, he’s getting better each day. When he’ll be back here full-time, I don’t know. When he’ll be available full-time, whether he’ll be able to go this week for the game and all those questions, we don’t have answered right now."
Atlanta Falcons: They should be improved from their 4-12 record last year as long as they remain healthy. How much improvement takes place remains to be seen. The offense boasts strong names like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Steven Jackson. Rookie tackle Jake Matthews also has received positive reviews. The defense, meanwhile, could be a different story. The Falcons ranked 27th in total defense last season, and Sean Weatherspoon’s placement on injured reserve with a torn Achilles’ tendon doesn’t help matters. Atlanta could struggle to produce a pass rush off the edge. That doesn’t bode well in a division known for offensive fireworks.
Carolina Panthers: They face the difficult task of trying to become the first team to repeat as NFC South champions. There’s a reason why the feat has never been accomplished before: The division is known as one of the NFL’s most unpredictable, and don’t expect things to be different this fall. Cam Newton was strong last season, and he must become consistent with his play, especially as a passer. The wide receiving corps will begin a new era without long-time staple Steve Smith, but big things are expected from rookie Kelvin Benjamin. The defensive line will remain a strength after Carolina produced a league-best 60 sacks last season. The offensive line could be shaky, with plenty of newcomers around four-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. Most likely, the Panthers will go as far as their defense leads them.
New Orleans Saints: They enter the fall as a trendy pick to win the division for good reason. Drew Brees and Sean Payton are proven winners together. Year after year, complementary parts on offense change but the results remain the same. Rookie Brandin Cooks is an explosive addition to the Saints’ wide receiving corps. Expect Khiry Robinson and an improved Mark Ingram to shoulder the load in the backfield. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan developed a nice chemistry with his unit last year, so expect a similar development with the current group, which was enhanced by Jairus Byrd’s addition in free agency. Cornerback depth could be an issue if injuries are aplenty. But there are many things to like about the Saints, who should aim to play as many postseason games at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as possible.
THREE BOLD PREDICTIONS
1. Mike Glennon will be the Bucs’ quarterback by season’s end.
Signing McCown in free agency was a smart decision by Smith to insert a familiar face to help introduce a new culture at One Buc Place. Still, there are many questions about McCown’s ability to play a full 16-game schedule. He has played more than nine games in a single season once before, in 2004 with the Arizona Cardinals (14 games). Glennon received a surprising vote of confidence when the Bucs passed on Johnny Manziel at seventh overall in the NFL draft. This is McCown’s team for now. But either because of health issues or subpar play behind a work-in-progress offensive line, McCown will be replaced. Glennon Era 2.0 will begin earlier than most expect.
2. Richie Incognito will play for the Bucs this season.
Yes, the trade for Mankins allowed the Bucs to avoid the Incognito option for now. But don’t be surprised to see the controversial guard find a home with Tampa Bay either because of injury or subpar play by one of the Bucs’ current options. Smith and Licht came away impressed by their talks with Incognito. It was stunning that the five-hour meeting happened at all, given that the new regime seemed set on a wise no-drama policy after passing on Manziel and shipping off party-loving wide receiver Mike Williams to the Buffalo Bills. But the Bucs could become desperate on the offensive line again, and Incognito remains an option.
3. Seferian-Jenkins will trail only Jackson and Evans among the Bucs’ leaders in receiving yards this season.
There are so many things to like about the second-round selection from Washington. His size at 6-foot-5, 262 pounds is impressive. His self-critical demeanor is beyond his years. Look for him to become a de-facto No. 3 wide receiver as the season progresses. The Bucs considered him a steal in the NFL draft at his position for a reason, and he looked the part in training camp. He’ll be given plenty of chances to showcase his skills.