Lovie Smith's name was floating around One Buc Place on the very morning head coach Greg Schiano was fired.
"People think they're going to name Lovie Smith," a former member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization said Monday.
That proved prophetic, and it wasn't much of a leap of logic. Smith helped build the famous Tampa 2 defense as an assistant under Tony Dungy. He's a throwback to the glory days of a franchise that lost its way under a coach who was too lax (Raheem Morris) and a coach who was too rigid (Schiano). Smith is the goldilocks hire – not too hard and not too soft – and it's hard to imagine anyone in Tampa having second thoughts about moving on from one of the most aggravating seasons in the post-Creamsicle era.
"We knew from the start of our search," Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer said in a statement, "that [Smith] was the ideal man to lead our team into a new era of Buccaneer football."
So what could go wrong? Well, the one frustration with the glory era of the Bucs, and every era of the Bucs, is also Smith's problem: offense.
Tampa Bay has had startlingly few offensive playmakers throughout its history. While it takes a split-second to name stars on defense over the years – Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Ronde Barber – it takes longer to come up with the most exciting weapons on offense. The all-time leading rusher is James Wilder (5,957), and only two others (Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott) have rushed for more than 4,000. The player with the most career receptions is … also James Wilder (430). And only three Bucs have more than 4,000 receiving yards all-time (Mark Carrier, Kevin House, Jimmie Giles). Vinny Testaverde leads in all-time passing yards (14,820), and Josh Freeman, who everyone in Tampa would like to forget, came within six yards of second all time in that category. Even the 2002 Super Bowl run climaxed in a defensive play: Barber's Pick 6 in Philadelphia to lift Jon Gruden's team to the NFC championship.
Bottom-line: it's been grim on offense.
As for Smith, he spent nine years as head coach of the Chicago Bears, and only once did his team rank in the top 20 in yards gained. His rushing offenses ranked in the top 10 only twice, and his passing offenses never ranked in the top 10 despite having Jay Cutler for four seasons. It's safe to say that if Smith had even an average offense in Chicago, he might still be there. After all, he did make the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman, which is similar to, say, making the Super Bowl with Brad Johnson.
So while back-to-the-future sounds like a good idea to any Bucs fan who has suffered through the post-Gruden era, it has a certain pitfall under Smith.
This puts pressure on Smith to bring in a strong offensive mind, reportedly like former Cal coach Jeff Tedford, to create a dynamic attack. The concern with that, however, is personnel. Quarterback Mike Glennon, who just completed his rookie season, has an NFL-caliber arm and build, but he has tended to make key mistakes in key situations going back to his college days at N.C. State. Is he the answer? Smith and whoever he brings in will have to figure that out before the Bucs draft in April.
However, quarterback is not even the biggest offensive question. Although Doug Martin is a terrific young rusher, the offensive line in front of him has been inconsistent and injured. Vincent Jackson is a threat on the flank, but will be 31 years old when the season starts. Mike Williams was a disappointment after signing a big contract last offseason.
A year ago, after a 7-9 season that looked like the start of a resurrection in Tampa, Schiano gathered with his staff to discuss what the team needed to make the leap to nine or 10 wins and the playoffs. Although there were certainly issues in the secondary, most of the problems were on offense.
"We needed a complimentary wide receiver," said the aforementioned source. "We needed a kick returner. We needed a slot receiver. We needed help on the offensive line."
A year later, those needs are still largely unmet (although Williams is still young enough to pay dividends opposite Jackson). A new offensive coordinator could certainly help Glennon and the overall scheme, but that's not going to be enough. The Bucs will have to deal with Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan twice each next season. They are going to have to score points no matter how good their defense becomes under Smith.
It's hard to argue with Smith's hire. The Bucs needed someone with head coaching experience and playoff experience. Smith has both. The Bucs also needed someone to calm the waters and create trust among players after two head coaches who left many divided and skeptical. Smith can do that. Overall, the Bucs needed a steady influence. Smith has it.
The drawback with "steady," though, is it sometimes drifts toward stale. That's a drawback the Bucs know all too well. It's also something Bears followers and employees recognize from the Smith era.
Then again, after letdown seasons in both Chicago and Tampa, steady might be something both franchise dearly miss.
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