Brad Biggs: When it comes to NFC South, coach Lovie Smith says 'Why not us?' about his Bucs

 

Chicago Tribune

Less than a month before his debut as head coach, the Buccaneers scored a victory with Lovie Smith.

The club announced Monday there will not be any local television blackouts based on a projection of ticket sales, meaning the club expects to surpass the NFL's 85 percent threshold. Consider it a triumph for Smith, who has been the face of the franchise since his hiring Jan. 2, prominent in public and out spreading the slogan "It's a Bucs life."

Smith never had to be a pitchman for ticket sales in nine seasons coaching the Bears. But the economy gripped Tampa tighter than many other cities and the team is coming off a 4-12 year, its third season with four victories or fewer in the last five. The Bucs, who haven't won a playoff game since winning the Super Bowl in the 2002 season, were 29th in attendance last season and 26th in stadium capacity.

The standings might create a different mood come November, but the fan base has been energized. After an 0-3 start in 2013, the Bucs announced the organization would buy remaining tickets to keep the product on local TV after the franchise had 19 of 24 home games blacked out from 2010 to 2012.

Sixteen days into his new job, Smith started a coordinated campaign with an appearance at the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs' Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Breakfast. A slew of events followed, from a Wounded Warrior charity football game in Plant to a Dick Vitale charity gala and many others. In training camp, there is a Lovie Line every day where 100 kids 12 and younger are selected to meet the coach.

"I wanted to be out front," Smith said. "I went to I don't know how many places and in front of I don't know how many groups. You name it. I've done a lot, we'll just say that, and people have been great every step along the way."

His message was direct and straightforward. While some struggling sports outfits plead for patience, he went the opposite direction.

"Even if we want them to, fans are not going to be patient," Smith said. "There is no such thing as rebuilding and 'we will eventually get it together.' It's about now."

Six times in the last 11 years the last place finisher from the previous season has wound up atop the NFC South. His message has been simple: Why not us? It might be a stretch in what looks to be a strong division but the Bucs spent about $55 million guaranteed in a free-agent shopping spree. Entering camp, 43 of the 90 players on the roster were not with the organization last year and the Bucs have made 99 roster moves since Smith was hired, not counting their draft class.

Gerald McCoy texted Smith to congratulate him after he was hired. What followed was a directive for the under tackle Smith calls the best player on the roster.

"He called me and he immediately let me know what my job description was," McCoy said. "To lead the troops. No choice. He said it is going to be a new day in Tampa and it it's going to happen, it's all on you. I said, 'Let's go.'"

Players were anxious for a new message after a tumultuous year under Greg Schiano, really a rocky two seasons that featured 21 losses and headlines about discontent.

"I'd be lying if I said we weren't ready for a culture change," McCoy said. "We stuck together through the circus of all the stuff that took place. We were ready for change. Everybody was."

Former Bears quarterback Josh McCown has marveled at how Smith's non-nonsense approach has been embraced.

"To a degree, players said, 'Hey, what's he like?' " McCown said. "What's cool is you don't have to tell them everything because Lovie is who he is and it's fun to let it kind of happen organically. You give them a little bit but you want to be fair and let everyone form their own opinions. It's neat to see them come to the same conclusion. There is still a lot to be learned about our team and who we are and all those things. Early indications are the guys are responding to him."

Linebacker Mason Foster said the message regarding change came across quickly. There was a whirlwind of moves, the most prominent being the release of cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was set to earn $16 million this season. Talented but troubled wide receiver Mike Williams was dumped in a trade to the Bills for a sixth-round pick.

"It was definitely different," Foster said. "Lovie came in Day 1 and told us he was going to treat us like men and he expects us to act like men. You know what you need to do. You know you need to take care of your body and make good decisions. He gives you a lot of room, but you have to know what time it is and we want to win.

"They got rid of a lot of guys and brought in guys they wanted. Those of us that were remaining knew they kept us around for a reason and now is the time to show it."

It's not a perfect roster but who has one? Smith is no stranger to offensive line issues and the Bucs have them. McCown is the starter but Smith calls Mike Glennon, 4-9 as a rookie starter last year, the club's quarterback of the future. How often do you see a starter go to a backup role and re-emerge as a top-flight passer? The defense should be good and the offense with wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims has way more firepower than the Bears in 2004 when Smith came aboard.

"If we win five we're not going to say, 'Man, we're getting better,' " Smith said. "No. We set the same goals. There is parity in the league from top to bottom and we feel like we have some special players at key positions. We have all the things you need to turn it around and then be successful for the long haul. We're not trying to get a quick fix to anything.

"Why not us?"

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