TAMPA, Fla. — Since Lovie Smith’s hire in January, he has been cast as the anti-Greg Schiano, a man who arrived to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a proven NFL pedigree and a tame demeanor that stands in contrast to the toes-on-the-line perception of the failed Schiano era. But initial impressions are deceiving when considering the man charged to lift the Bucs to national relevance.
Smith, in reality, is more like Schiano than most realize. Shared aggression is the reason why.
Consider: With their mandatory minicamp closing Thursday afternoon, the Bucs have lived a wild transformation since Smith declared that they had "unfinished business" when he was introduced as Schiano’s successor Jan. 6. Since, players who failed to fit Smith’s vision — for a variety of reasons, financial and otherwise — were jettisoned in a swift manner that showed his urgency. Among the key names to depart and find new homes: cornerback Darrelle Revis (New England Patriots), wide receiver Mike Williams (Buffalo Bills), guard Davin Joseph (St. Louis Rams) and offensive tackle Donald Penn (Oakland Raiders).
Certainly, Schiano was more outward with his aggression. He dropped hints in news conferences at his discomfort with quarterback Josh Freeman, before an ugly divorce with the former franchise face lifted rookie backup Mike Glennon to the starting role. Schiano was vocal on the practice fields. He became an easy target for fans last season, because his bulldog persona soured people when the Bucs became swamped in losing and public follies.
Smith, meanwhile, is a different man. He appears quiet and collected. He was hard to notice on the field during offseason practice sessions. The way he carries himself creates the impression that he’s more confident that his methods will earn NFL players’ respect, something that Schiano struggled to accomplish.
"I really don’t look back an awful lot," Smith said Thursday about the Bucs’ change. "A lot of change has happened, of course, I know that. But it just always seems like it’s always the next day and, ‘What can we do with that?’ And that’s where we are right now. We had a successful offseason program. But now, it’s about that next step. I can’t wait for training camp."
Aggression binds both men, though their styles are dissimilar. Schiano’s aggression was more public. Smith’s is subtler, found in the Bucs’ roster turnover and breakneck change of the franchise’s culture.
Make no mistake: Aggression is necessary for an NFL coach’s survival. Aggression creates legends, from Vince Lombardi to Don Shula. Aggression creates Super Bowl champions, from the Green Bay Packers of the late 1960s to the modern-day Seattle Seahawks.
Aggression can also become a major gamble.
Smith’s aggressive approach to remaking the Bucs comes with major questions. What if quarterback Josh McCown, who has just 15 touchdown passes in the NFL since 2008, falls short of expectations and looks every bit of a soon-to-be 35-year-old? What if Glennon doesn’t have the mental strength to be the Bucs’ quarterback of the future? What if an offensive line transformation, one that should include injured guard Carl Nicks, fails to contain defenses? What if new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, never before an NFL coach, struggles to adapt to how the game is played at its most elite level?
We’ve already seen what happens when good intentions go wrong.
Schiano’s aggression became a failed gamble. He gambled that the Bucs’ locker room would grow to respect his hardline ways. He gambled that Revis would be the "final piece" to lift the Bucs to contention in the NFC South. He gambled that the move from Freeman to Glennon would produce returns quick enough — or buy him enough time — to survive at least one more season.
It’s wise, then, to view Smith not as Schiano’s opposite but as someone driven by the same desire: To succeed fast, with the team taking on his personality, in a league where a coach is given precious little grace time to figure out his landscape.
Smith will pay the same price as Schiano if he fails.
"Nowadays, there’s no rebuilding and ‘Hey, guys. You’re making progress,’" Smith said. "Nobody wants to hear about all that. That process has to speed up fairly quick."
Still, Smith can learn from what led to Schiano’s demise. Too often, Schiano appeared inflexible, unwilling to adapt to his players and the trials of the moment. Some of the Bucs’ best days of 2013 came in winning four of five games from Weeks 10 through 14, when Schiano seemed looser and more relaxed in the public eye after keeping his job following a 0-8 start. But he adjusted too late.
Smith must be wiser with how he adapts to the ebbs and flows of his new role. His knowledge of the franchise as a former linebackers coach under Tony Dungy should help. So should lessons gained from his nine seasons leading the Chicago Bears, which included a Super Bowl appearance in the 2006 campaign.
Smith’s aggression, unlike Schiano’s, was tested in the NFL before arriving in Tampa. Schiano’s two years here served as a chemistry lab for his ambition. Smith, meanwhile, has had time at multiple stops since entering the league in 1996 to fine-tune his philosophy.
Still, there are no guarantees Smith will succeed.
Like with Schiano, another man who arrived with an aggressive plan to shape the future, time will show if Smith’s influence translates to success.