2014 preview: Buccaneers hoping for quick turnaround under Lovie Smith

Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown (12) and head coach Lovie Smith are tasked with improving an offense that ranked 30th in scoring last season by averaging 18 points per game.

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With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it’s the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes … even February. Goodbye, offseason!

The series continues with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

2013: 4-12, tied for last place in the NFC South.

Head coach: Lovie Smith, first year with the Bucs (81-63 overall in the regular season with the Chicago Bears from 2004 to 2012).

Key Departures: CB Darrelle Revis, FB Erik Lorig, OT Donald Penn, G Ted Larsen, G Davin Joseph.

Key Arrivals: OT Anthony Collins, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, CB Mike Jenkins, DE Michael Johnson, QB Josh McCown, DT Clinton McDonald, CB Alterraun Verner, SS Major Wright.


1. Will McCown repeat last year’s surprising rise?

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At least early, the Bucs will go as far on offense as Josh McCown leads them. It’s no surprise that coach Lovie Smith would target McCown — Jay Cutler’s former backup on the Bears — in free agency to help establish a vision for new-look Tampa Bay. There’s comfort in familiarity, and McCown offers the first-year coach assurance that a veteran leader will be the heart of the Bucs’ offensive attack.

Smith has raved about McCown’s presence as a coach on the field. There’s little doubt that the 35-year-old offers a veteran eye for Smith’s staff in an effort to improve a unit that ranked 30th in scoring last season by averaging 18 points per game.

Still, there are questions that surround McCown. He threw for 1,829 yards with 13 touchdowns and one interception in eight games last season, but this fact remains: McCown hasn’t played in more than nine games in a single season since he appeared in a career-high 14 with the Arizona Cardinals in 2004.

Can McCown continue his momentum? Who’s to say he won’t regress? Can his body handle an entire season?

McCown has plenty to prove to show he can be the Bucs’ answer behind center for a full year. If he struggles, don’t be surprised to see backup Mike Glennon promoted into the starting role. Smith dubbed the second-year NC State product as the Bucs’ "quarterback of the future" after Tampa Bay passed on Johnny Manziel in the NFL draft.

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2. How will Tedford do as an offensive coordinator?

So much about Jeff Tedford’s offense remains a mystery. He has dropped hints: Expect an up-tempo attack, expect multiple running backs to be used often, expect no one pace to dictate his scheme’s identity. Still, don’t anticipate much to be learned between now and a Week 1 matchup against the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.

There will be a large temptation to compare Tedford, California’s coach from 2002 to 2012, to Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, another former Pac-12 Conference coach. That would be unwise, though. Each man lives two vastly different situations, and Tedford’s concern should be improving a unit that ranked last in the league in total offense last season by averaging 277 yards per game.

There’s no shortage of weapons at Tedford’s disposal. The coaching staff has faith in McCown, and even if the Bucs are forced to move to Glennon, the second-year player showed promise as a rookie starter. Running back Doug Martin, a Pro Bowl player after the 2012 season, should have plenty of motivation to rebound after an injury-shorted fall last year. Vincent Jackson headlines the Bucs’ wide receiving corps, but the addition of Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins will give Tampa Bay an abundance of sizable targets.

3. How good will the defense become under Smith?

The Bucs enter the fall with defense as a clear area of strength. They were exposed at times last year, particularly as Tampa Bay’s anemic offense failed to provide support, but most of the Bucs’ star power resides on this side of the ball.

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Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a two-time Pro Bowl player, highlights the group. Linebacker Lavonte David, only 24 years old, continues to grow into one of the league’s strongest at his position. The Bucs also made key free-agency signings of defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, plus cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Mike Jenkins.

Yes, some will wonder what could have been when it comes to cornerback Darrelle Revis’ short career with the Bucs. Still, his $16 million cap hit was never plausible with the franchise’s overhaul after Smith’s hire. It was best that both parties moved on.

Secondary members like safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson must have strong seasons, and defensive end Adrian Clayborn should feel pressure to live up to his first-round potential this year after totaling just 13 sacks in his first three seasons.

Smith arrives to Tampa Bay with a reputation as a defensive guru, so the Bucs are in good hands. How soon they reach their potential, if at all, remains the larger question.


Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy

McCoy, after a shaky start to his career, has grown into the face of the Bucs’ defense, if not the entire locker room. He’s introspective, witty and full of life. Picture Warren Sapp without the sharp edges to his personality, and you have No. 93. After all, it’s easy to like a guy who sauntered into training camp on reporting day wearing a slick red robe.


Yes, McCoy can also play. Last season served as a warning of sorts for the rest of the NFC South: Be prepared, he will only become better. Smith’s scheme hinges on pressure from the defensive line to succeed, so expect McCoy to be given ample chances to star. He had a career-high 9 1/2 sacks last season, and it shouldn’t be out of the question to expect at least 10 this year if all goes according to plan.

McCoy, 26, will become better with time. Smith and new general manager Jason Licht have been far from shy in showing their excitement to work with the former first-round pick, so they picture McCoy becoming a face of the Bucs’ fresh era. His pairing with McDonald, who had 5 1/2 sacks last year, has the potential to make Sundays miserable for opposing quarterbacks. If McCoy stays healthy, this should be a big year for him.


Lovie Smith

Breathe easy. It’s not 2013 anymore. It’s that simple.

Last season provided a lesson in how low an NFL franchise can go. The Bucs had a variety of scars by the time former coach Greg Schiano and former general manager Mark Dominik were fired. There was the Josh Freeman fiasco, the MRSA cases, the 0-8 start, the 1-4 close.

Welcome, new day.

A complete overhaul was necessary, and that’s what happened when the Glazer family targeted Smith as their next coach. Smith, the Bucs’ linebackers coach from 1996 to 2000, brings credibility because of his history with the Bears and an awareness of Tampa Bay’s rise to respectability under Tony Dungy. His hire, in many ways, is an attempt to recapture the momentum gained during the Dungy era.

A quick turnaround is possible –€“ look at what the Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs accomplished last season –€“ but the Bucs should enter this year with tempered expectations. Though Tampa Bay will be improved, the NFC South will be difficult again. The schedule doesn’t do the Bucs any favors, either. They open with the Panthers, St. Louis Rams, Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens through Week 6. A hard reality could come fast and furious.

Still, there’s reason to believe with Smith. There has been a sense of control within the Bucs’ facility since his hire, a feeling that the franchise is in good hands with his influence. He has won the offseason, but certainly, he has much to show that Tampa Bay can be relevant again.

Still, his past suggests he’ll achieve the goal sooner rather than later.


A questionable offensive line, specifically at guard

An offensive line overhaul in the offseason gave way to questions. Center Jeremy Zuttah is gone. Tackle Donald Penn is gone. Guard/center Ted Larsen is gone. Guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph are gone.

So what will this new line look like? Center Evan Dietrich-Smith and offensive tackle Anthony Collins are upgrades, but the largest worry remains at guard. Jamon Meredith and Oniel Cousins were listed as the top guards in the Bucs’ unofficial depth chart released Tuesday. Still, Patrick Omameh and rookie Kadeem Edwards have received looks, and expect both to command more throughout the preseason.

It’s surreal to consider the offensive line’s change, especially with all the optimism that surrounded Nicks and Joseph at the start of training camp last year. Perhaps the Bucs will look elsewhere to fill needs on the line before Week 1. The staff’s experimentation with various players in camp suggests they’re trying to study the options at their disposal, so anticipate that the guard situation will remain fluid throughout the preseason.

If the Bucs don’t shore up the offense line situation, though, look out. It’s hard to picture McCown, Martin, Jackson or any other top skill player reaching his potential with a leaky line. The concern with Smith’s hire was his past struggle constructing teams with strong, efficient offenses. The Bucs must be better than average on this side of the ball to be competitive in the NFC South.


New coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht wasted no time overhauling a roster than finished 4-12 in 2013. There will be at least five new offensive starters — including ex-Chicago quarterback Josh McCown — playing under a coordinator (Jeff Tedford) who has never coached in the NFL. Even with the surprising release of star cornerback Darrelle Revis, the Buccaneers should field an improved pass defense that generates more sacks with the return of the Tampa 2 scheme. With Smith’s track record, the Bucs could very well exceed modest expectations as the groundwork is laid to get Tampa Bay into the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season. Prediction: 7-9.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.