TAMPA, Fla. — Lovie Smith remains a figure of hope and opportunity for a franchise that aches to recapture its former glory. But in time, he will be defined by how well the Tampa Bay Buccaneers meet his definition of success.
Success, most NFL coaches will insist before training camp, means winning the Super Bowl. It’s a safe response. It shows ambition in late July, no matter how far-fetched, when anything seems possible from Cortland, New York, to Oxnard, California. Even Smith, a savvy veteran given a chance to live a renaissance at the place where his NFL coaching career began in 1996, humored reporters packed in a studio Thursday at One Buc Place by saying his goal for the upcoming months was ”Destination: Phoenix.”
Why not think big fast?
But success, of course, means something different for a team trying to rise from the ashes of a 4-12 season, for a team trying to become relevant again after missing the playoffs each year since 2007, than the returning AFC champions who were blitzed in the Super Bowl. The idea of success for the 2014 Bucs should reside in a distant zip code than a proven contender, a legitimate power, like the Denver Broncos.
Some dream of turning near misses in the playoffs into a parade with the Lombardi Trophy. The Bucs, meanwhile, should be concerned with learning to dream first.
”We want to win the Super Bowl,” Smith said. ”I hear some snickers on that right there, but that’s our plan. Goal-wise, we’re going to talk about winning all our games at Raymond James (Stadium). We want to win the NFC South, and then let’s see where we can go from there. What record it takes to do that, I don’t know.”
The statement reflects Smith’s greatest gift to the Bucs since his hire in January. He has allowed a fan base that became fatigued by Raheem Morris’ failures and Greg Schiano’s embarrassments to envision success again, an offering that’s good as long as his record remains 0-0. Training camp, which begins Friday in Tampa’s steamy late afternoon heat, remains a time when possibilities dance in the minds of the most fervent of fans. The honeymoon, the summer of Lovie, is ongoing. No pewter-and-red soul has become jaded.
”Sure, quarterback Josh McCown’s 35-year-old body will somehow hold up for an entire season…”
”Sure, the Bucs will somehow find a way to cobble together an effective offensive line, despite concerns about oft-injured guard Carl Nicks…”
”Sure, Smith will somehow transform the Bucs’ defense into one of the NFL’s elite…”
”The pressure, it’s there,” Smith said. ”But for us, you have to come in with high expectations. And as I talk about what our ultimate goal is, winning the Super Bowl, it’s all a process. But for our players, we have to set that ceiling high right away. To me, it’s just as simple as that. The pressure to do well and be patient, yeah, we’re starting off as a 4-12 team. So judge us from there, and see the improvement, and let’s just kind of see where we go.”
Smith has seen resurrections before. He saw his former boss, Tony Dungy, go 6-10 in his first season with the Bucs in 1996, with eight losses in the first nine games. He saw himself go 5-11 in his first season with the Chicago Bears in 2004, with five losses in the first six games. Both men reached the playoffs in their second season. Smith advanced to the Super Bowl in his third.
Though the ”Destination: Phoenix” talk is cute and plays to the most optimistic of crowds, Smith should know a revival of the Bucs in 2014 will be difficult. The roster turnover, the clear change in culture since January, the pivot from a mire that made the Bucs a national eyesore early last fall — all that movement toward another direction was necessary. The old status quo had failed.
Still, all the change within Smith’s Bucs gave rise to new life that only time will mature. Six victories this fall, following the 0-8 nightmare to start last year, would signal progress. Seven victories or more would mark considerable steps toward Smith’s ability to redefine what success means at Tampa Bay.
Early Thursday, as the sun above One Buc Place started to cut through a muggy morning of new beginnings, even McCown knew the path ahead would be long.
”Adversity is coming, it just does,” he said. ”It does for every team in the league every year. And it is how you handle that really is the measure of the your team. That is what I like about our guys in the locker room. I feel like we have people that can handle those bumps and really stick together. And that is the key. So we are really optimistic right now. We know things will happen, but it is who we are and how we handle it that will make a difference.”
Smith understands the mission, and he knows his honeymoon phase is almost over, his results come Week 1 and beyond to shape the memory of him here. Yes, his job is about maximizing the talent of the men on his roster. Yes, his job is about pushing them to achieve more wins than losses. Yes, his job is about delivering on the promise that so many throughout the Bay Area see in him after the pain of the recent past.
But it’s also about altering the definition of success when it comes to discussing his Bucs. Now, success means nominal gains: Two more victories than last year, maybe three, with an unforgiving NFC South waiting. Nothing will be easy.
”You’ve got a coach who has won as a position coach, who has won as a coordinator and who has won as a head coach, been to the Super Bowl, been to the playoffs numerous times, has a Top 5 defense repeatedly, Top 10 in a bunch of categories on all of his teams,” Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. ”That’s something we haven’t had around here since I’ve been here. So we’ve seen him put it all together before on other teams, and I believe he can do it here.”
If all goes well, if Smith’s Destination: Super Bowl talk doesn’t draw snickers one day, then he will have achieved what he set out to do. Change the conversation. Change expectations.
Until then, until the journey perhaps reaches its endpoint on a distant day, success will arrive in smaller gains made.