There is one day, during the year he took away from football, that Lovie Smith remembers vividly.
Smith was fully in charge on this day, as he had been with the Chicago Bears for the previous nine years. He was, once again, a leader of men. Well, leader of a man. One very small man.
This was Grandpa's day.
Jackson Smith, Lovie's eighth grandchild from three children, was born on November 29, 2012 to Matt and Kathleen Smith. Grandpa's year off had allowed him the much-coveted opportunity to be fully involved in his family's life, so he had held Jackson plenty of times, changed diapers, played on the floor. Now, however, it was just Jackson and Lovie; Grandpa alone and in charge with his grandson, for the first time, for a whole day.
This is a day familiar to plenty of grandfathers, or uncles or older siblings or even first-time dads. One-on-one, no safety net. It's a little scary. It's also a chance to build stronger bonds, to become the center of each other's worlds, and in a more practical sense, to prove one's worth as a caregiver and guardian.
Lovie and Jackson did all of those things together, on a day the elder Smith expects to remember for the rest of his life. Of course, if his memory of the day does slip, Grandpa can just check his notes. Throughout the day, Smith kept a meticulous journal of everything he and Jackson did, in 10-minute increments.
11:20 – Changed J.'s diaper
11:30 – Took J. outside
11:40 – J. begins crying; have to take him inside to get him to stop
He wanted an account of the day for personal reasons, but he also created for himself a roadmap to follow the next time he was alone with his grandson, or any future grandkids. He now knows what worked and when, and how to repeat it. A plan is formed; nothing need be left to chance.
"I'm one of those kinds of guys," Smith says, simply.
Is there any question why the Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, interviewed only one person for their coaching vacancy in the early hours of 2014, and why the 10th head coach in franchise history was installed just three days after the ninth one left the building?
They wanted one of those guys. Their Buccaneers needed one of those guys.
Bryan, Joel and Edward Glazer, co-chairmen of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hired Lovie Smith as the team’s new head coach on January 2, 2014. Just four days earlier, the Buccaneers had finished a 4-12 season with a 42-17 loss in New Orleans. After a promising 6-4 start under first-year Head Coach Greg Schiano in 2012, the team had lost 17 of its next 22 games. The 2013 season was particularly ill-fated, marked not only by losses, but injuries, depth chart upheaval and the type of media attention a team doesn’t want. Furthermore, Tampa Bay hadn’t made the playoffs since 2007, by far the longest drought since the late Malcolm Glazer purchased the team in 1995.
This was a franchise in need of a change, which is nothing new. A half-dozen teams a year find themselves in such a position, and they often seek out new leaders who they hope will transform the entire culture at their headquarters. It would be fair to say the Bucs did just that in 2009 with Raheem Morris and 2012 with Schiano.
That was going to happen at One Buccaneer Place regardless of who the Glazers hired, because Schiano’s regime had been so specific in its approach. For better or worse, the next coach wasn’t going to be anything like the previous one. By targeting Smith, however, the Buccaneers did something more than make a change for change’s sake. In one fell swoop – in one inspired hire that was lauded across the national media platform – the Buccaneers harkened back to the success of their past and ensured an atmosphere of stability and trust.
At least, that’s the plan. Smith seemed like the perfect hire on January 2, and there was a sense of great things to come when he walked through the doors of One Buccaneer Place for the first time on January 5, arriving one day before his formal introductory press conference. A countdown began on that day: Lovie Smith’s First 100 Days. The Bucs wouldn’t know for sure after those 100 days if they had, in fact, made a move as perfect as this one seemed just after the New Year, but they would have a much better idea of what lay ahead for the franchise. Like a president settling into the Oval Office and setting a new policy tone, Smith would have undoubtedly made his mark by Day 100.
This is the story of those First 100 Days.
On the 100th day of Lovie Smith's tenure as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach, his team is gathering in the wood-paneled auditorium that sits right at the heart of One Buccaneer Place. Smith sits in the lower right corner, just offstage, talking quietly to one of the team's video guys. A set of stairs ascends from where he is seated, and the wall at the top of it bears a small but bright digital clock that is steadily moving towards 8:00 a.m.
Smith doesn't appear to be watching the clock as the room begins to fill up. At 7:45, there are a few clumps of players in the descending rows of seats; running back Doug Martin is in the first row, his chair swiveled around to talk to three offensive linemen sitting behind him. Quarterback Josh McCown is across the aisle, sitting alone, leafing through a notebook. Assistant coaches stand or sit along the outside walls and the back of the room. At 7:55, the room is nearly full, and at 7:57 the doors are no longer swinging open and closed. It's clear that Smith has had his eye on that small clock, however discreetly, because as the display reads 7:59:57, he rises and steps onto the stage.
And so it is that he is addressing his team at exactly 8:00 a.m., as scheduled, and fittingly he's talking about time. About being on time. About not wasting each other's time. He makes it clear that arriving at a meeting a single second past its scheduled start is considered arriving late. That's a slight amendment from what he told the players the week before, that one minute past the deadline is considered late. Smith laughingly acknowledges that this could be interpreted to give them 59 extra seconds to avoid being tardy, and that's not a precedent he wants to set.
The coach first addressed his assembled team a week earlier, on April 7, Monday of the first week the team was allowed to gather under Collective Bargaining Agreement regulations. The Buccaneers and a handful of other teams are allotted two extra weeks to begin the process of assimilating a new coaching staff; most of the league will start on April 21. That first meeting was largely procedural, however. Where do you park? How do you enter and exit the building? What time do you work out?
On this Monday, a week later, Smith has a message. He doesn't intend to use much of their time, five minutes at the most, and the message is a simple one, delivered not judgmentally but matter-of-factly: It's Not Good Enough.
Four-and-12 is not good enough. The effort the players put forth in the weight room the previous week was wholly satisfactory…and not good enough. Four hours of attentiveness, from 8-12 each day, all that is allowed by the CBA at this time of year, is what is expected at this stage of the offseason…and not good enough. Soon, the Carolina Panthers will be working too, and Smith assures his players that they will be working hard. The Buccaneers need to work harder. Smith makes it clear that the first week of work went just as he envisioned it would, and he is pleased. He is just not satisfied, and he doesn't want his players to be satisfied.
So, says Smith, when you get back to your hotel room or your house tonight, take a little extra time to study the playbook. When you're in meetings this week, ask questions of your coach. Always ask questions. Work hard enough so that at the end of every day you are a little bit better than you were at the end of the day before. "Keep thinking about football," says Smith. "Keep evaluating yourself. We have to do more."
Abruptly, at the end of his message, Smith says in a raised voice, "Gill Byrd!" Byrd, the team's cornerbacks coach, responds without hesitation: "Ready!" The seated players clap their hands once, immediately and in unison. Well, almost immediately, and almost in unison. This was a ritual Smith had taught his team the week before, and this was a test. Not good enough. Smith started the pattern over again, Byrd was ready again and this time the clap was one loud clip of sound.
And at that, Smith watches his team rise from their seats and head to the doors at the back of the auditorium, aimed at individual-position meetings with the assistant coaches.
His team. This is unmistakably Lovie Smith's team now. In 100 days, he and General Manager Jason Licht have reshaped the roster and rewired the culture at One Buccaneer Place. Smith speaks in an unhurried Texas drawl, and maybe for that reason you expect a measured approach. Slow and steady. Instead, Smith came in with a hammer and a chisel and, with Licht's help, started chopping the roster apart so he could reset the team's foundation. Salary cap assets were redirected, positions were prioritized, performance was evaluated under an unblinking light. Some pieces didn't fit and were replaced. There was respect in the process, but no hesitation, and not much time for sentiment.
On paper, it looks like a step in the right direction…or a dozen steps, really. No team in the NFL was more active than the Buccaneers in free agency; no team devoted more guaranteed money in new contracts to players from other teams. In some cases, this was merely a redirection of funds, say a big contract to a rising, highly-regarded left tackle to replace the big contract that had been devoted to the previous left tackle.
Smith and Licht even cut ties with one of the NFL's most decorated players, choosing to allocate his sizeable hit on the salary cap to three or four depth chart needs rather than one. This might have been the most remarkable aspect of the entire project, a move that read like a public relations disaster when rumors of it first surfaced but in the long run was greeted by a collective, "Well, that actually makes sense…"
The Bucs were said by many to have "won free agency," but of course that is usually intended as a backhanded compliment. It is meant to evoke memories of previous spending sprees that failed to live up to expectations, such as the ill-fated Eagles "Dream Team" of 2011 or the Washington Redskins, circa Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith and Jeff George. It is meant to say this: "Sure, you won free agency, but you really haven't won anything."
And that, of course, is true. Smith knows it better than anyone. He also knows that, in many ways, he is to be the face of the franchise, and if that is going to be anything real and lasting – if this is to be Smith's last stop in the NFL, as he clearly desires – these efforts of the first 100 days need to bear fruit. He believes they will, because he believes in the plan, in the process. With the help of his coaching staff, and Jason Licht, he has mapped that plan out with exacting detail. He knows exactly what is going to happen on Day 101, which happens to be the day that taxes come due for millions of Americans. The Buccaneers' day of reckoning won't come due for another five months, but Smith will have his team ready when it does. He has laid the groundwork during these first 100 days.
For Smith, the first of these 100 days is almost literally a stroll from one life into another. Lovie Smith, the interested NFL observer, the grandpa-on-call, the man who has immersed himself in a year of self-evaluation. And Lovie Smith, the dialed-in NFL head coach, the hour-after-hour grinder, the master of organizational detail. He wakes up on Day One as one and goes back to bed as the other.
On Sunday, January 5, Smith arrives in Tampa, his original entry point into the NFL. This proves to be Day One on the job, though it's not really supposed to be. In the end, he simply can't help himself.
Lovie Smith arrives in Tampa via private jet sent by the Glazer family. He descends the plane's steps at 12:21 p.m., with Jackson in his arms. He is followed off the plane by his wife MaryAnne, his sons Matt and Miles and Matt’s wife, Kathleen. The first person he sees is Shelton Quarles, the former Bucs linebacker he helped mold from an undrafted free agent into a Pro Bowler, who is now a higher-up in the team’s player personnel department.
A few of the others standing on the private tarmac were around during his first stint with the Buccaneers, a decade-and-a-half earlier. He calls each of them by name, without hesitation. It’s a knack, or perhaps a learned skill. When you talk to Lovie Smith, be prepared for him to say your name several times during the conversation; it is undoubtedly a learning device that he has perfected.
Smith is a wizard with names, which is an underrated skill, especially in a job that requires interaction with so many people, a lot of it on camera and on the record. He doesn’t fail once on Day One to remember a name, whether it be while looking at the enormous photos on the walls of One Buc or running into another long-time team employee. He will, however, experience his first failure on the job before this day is over. It is an easy one to forgive.
Smith family on the way to Tampa!!!! pic.twitter.com/50osRLLgYE— Matt Smith (@Matt_Smith_IMG) January 5, 2014
Before the private jet has landed in Tampa, Matt has tweeted a picture of the six passengers on the plane. Four of them won’t be in town for long; Miles will become an entry-level coach on Smith’s staff but the others, including MaryAnne, will go back to their hometown. MaryAnne will take care of endless important details regarding the couple’s move to Tampa – first and foremost, finding a new home – but she’ll spend much of the winter and spring in Chicago while Smith immerses himself fully in football. It’s a necessary sacrifice during the most important days Smith will spend as the Buccaneers’ head coach.
This day, however, was not supposed to be about that. It was a celebration, which is why the family came along. Yes, Smith probably had a schedule on his iPad worked out to the half-hour, but there were no entries for work.
“We had plenty of time to get down to business, so for me and my family that was here, we were enjoying the journey,” he said. “The entire journey – from the moment we were taking off. There was about three feet of snow in Chicago and it seemed like a while until we could actually leave. Then to touch down here…there was just a feel, right away, when we touched down.”
Lovie and MaryAnne wanted to reconnect with Tampa. They wanted to visit some favorite spots, see what had changed, breathe in the warm air. They wanted to go to Publix.
“There are a lot of little things,” said Smith. “Being down here, of course, we shopped in Publix. There aren't any Publix in Illinois. Just all of those familiar places that are now a part of your home. But it was still a journey of getting to know a new place. It had been a while – 10 years in Chicago. It had been a while since we'd gone on a new adventure like this.”
Reminiscing and reconnecting was fine, but Lovie had an itch. With MaryAnne’s approval, he returned to One Buccaneer Place at about 10 p.m., located his corner office again and threw on some game tape. He had meant to make Day One all about family and fun, and not at all about work, and he had failed in the end. That is how NFL coaches are wired.
“I just couldn't help myself,” said Smith. “I have an office in Chicago, and I was in there from the time I got the job until pretty much the night before MaryAnne had said, 'Lovie you have to come up here and pack some stuff. I don't know what you need.' I packed enough sweaters to last for a long time.”
Smith didn’t need any of those sweaters and he found himself appropriating Buccaneer polo shirts for the majority of his daily wardrobe in the weeks to come. Even that was an upgrade from the days before he arrived in Tampa. After he accepted the job on January 2, Smith spent several days ensconced in that office in his Chicago home, gratefully accepting MaryAnne’s meal deliveries and often not bothering to change out of his pajamas. He pored over his greaseboard with the names of potential coaches and spent every waking moment planning. As much as he wanted to enjoy that first day in Tampa, he couldn’t stop planning.
“You're so excited about getting everything together and trying to contact people and all of that,” said Smith. “The night I got here – there's so much work to be done. You have a first-week checklist, and one of them was to meet with [Director of Communication] Nelson [Luis] and go over where everybody was going to be during the press conference. Getting prepared for that and of course the upcoming days. This is a time that we would never forget.”
Really, Smith didn't want any more of a delay. He was ready to work. He likened the year between his gigs in Chicago and Tampa to the month that coaches try to take off just before the start of training camp every year. This one was just longer, better, more relaxing. One day, he and MaryAnne decided to drive up into Wisconsin. Another time, with just a little more advancing planning, they took their little SL Mercedes and drove it down the California coast. They visited Costa Rica and took an Alaskan cruise.
This was good for Smith. NFL coaches are always sacrificing family time at the altar of more and more preparation. During this year, he could devote himself fully to a trip with MaryAnne without football running through the back of his mind. He could be a big part of Jackson's life. And he could still put in football work, just on his own schedule. With the Bears still paying his salary, he did consulting work for the NFL and also laid the groundwork for his own return.
"Think about it: You start off, it's January and you get some bad news. We're going in another direction. But when you have a strong faith like mine, you truly believe that God is in control of your life. I believe that. I live my life that way. And my next job has always been my best job. So you start off with that idea. And then to be able to study football for the year. I get up at 4:45 every day, without a clock. So to be in a position where I could sleep until 6:45, that was a major thing. Six forty-five? It took me at least two months to be able to do that!"
It took him one day to get back to a 4:45 alarm. It took him less than a day to get back into the rhythm of coaching, which not at all infrequently includes quiet 10:00 p.m. videotape sessions in the corner office. He had no trouble at all with that transition.
"Not at all, not at all," he said. "Look at it like this: You go through a year in the NFL – a big part of a coach's life is vacation before training camp. We get a chance to get away. You know what you want to do and now you get a chance to relax and regroup, getting ready for the season. Then when training camp comes, everybody's excited about getting back and getting started for the season. That's how it was for me, but I had a longer period time to go through it all. It was better than that. That first day back was better – the greeting at the plane and the tour and all of that was great, but so was sitting down that night and getting to work.
"Every player, when he initially comes into the league, should get cut right away. He would appreciate it so much more if he stayed out a year when he comes back."
Since marrying on November 25, 1980 Lovie and MaryAnne have lived in 11 different states and moved into – and out of – 18 different homes. MaryAnne would find them a 19th house in the Bay area (they wouldn't close on it until March, by which point Smith had become a fixture at the Residence Inn), but they both felt at home the moment they stepped off that plane on Sunday afternoon of Day One. Smith wants this to be his last NFL stop, and he wants Tampa to be their permanent home.
He still has a little bit to learn about this new home. The drive from the private airstrip goes right past the empty field where old One Buccaneer Place used to stand and, just a few minutes later, goes right past Raymond James Stadium, too. Smith is surprised when Quarles, who is driving, doesn't pull into the stadium lot; he thought the team's new facility was located there.
A right turn on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, just north of the stadium, and less than a mile later there is the new One Buccaneer Place, with its grand football-shaped entrance. Video rolls as Smith walks through the lobby door for the first time, into an area that doubles as a museum chronicling four decades of football. He stands in front of the display running down the history of the Buccaneers' head coaches. It has already been updated with his own information.
Soon, he'll be led to the office that has housed the previous three head coaches, and that is now his. It is a deeply satisfying day.
"When you lost something that you had for a long period of time," he said. "You really do appreciate it so much more when you get it back."
"The First 100 Days" is a presidential conceit, a measuring stick for the efficacy of change. It's a toe dipped into the water to see how far the ripples will spread. It's a promise on one end, and a judgment on the other.
New administrations almost always sweep into office on a platform of change, with a majority mandate and a honeymoon's glow. Of course, for a U.S. president, those first 100 days can also be a wake-up call, as all the optimistic words of inauguration day don't alter the system into which they are stepping. Presidents can't always overcome the opposition within that system to enact the changes they promised.
Lovie Smith didn't have that problem. It was, in fact, absolutely critical for him to step into – and then further develop – a cooperative structure at One Buccaneer Place. Even more so than presidents, new head coaches generally arrive because the old system was broken. The Buccaneers lost 21 of 32 games under Smith's predecessor, Greg Schiano, and labored under one negative headline after another in 2013. The team's last playoff season was receding into the blurry past, the sellout streak at Raymond James Stadium an even more distant memory. The Bucs were never going to return to the hopeless days of the '80s and '90s under previous ownership, but neither did they feel as relevant as they had been for much of a decade. That was exactly and explicitly what Smith promised: Relevance.
Smith knew that one aspect of that promise was for him to be not only the driving force behind that change, but also the face of a new era in franchise history. This knowledge came not from ego but experience. He understood that any club's ownership was not only going to want an internal plan for change but also a way to sell it.
During the year between his tenures in Chicago and Tampa Bay, Smith never wavered from his conviction that he deserved to be a head coach in the NFL. He never doubted that he would get a call when the inevitable half-dozen changeovers took place at the end of the 2013 season, and in fact the Buccaneers had him in place just days after their final loss under Schiano. It was reported, though Smith chooses not to comment on this topic or offer any confirmation, that several other teams also took a strong run at him for their coaching vacancies.
"I knew I was going to be a head coach again," says Smith. "You couldn't convince me I wasn't going to be a head coach again. The last time I coached, we were 10-6. So that didn't say, 'Hey, you guys have forgotten what you're doing.' It's like I never missed it, never missed a beat."
A presidential candidate runs because he thinks he deserves the job, and because he believes he can affect change. The decision-makers, be it a national majority or a team owner, believe it, too. And they don’t want to wait. Fifteen days after he toured One Buc Place and found his new office, Smith made his first appearance at a public event in the Bay area, speaking at the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs’ 34th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Breakfast. He got a standing ovation when he approached the podium, and he asked for the community to once again throw its full support behind the Buccaneers. He also tasted the area’s desire for a winning team.
“I felt what the people in the audience felt – they want change,” he said. “They love their Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team and I can tell they support what we're trying to do to bring their team back to where it should be.”
The speaking engagement was on the 16th of his first 100 days, and it was one day before Jason Licht would come aboard as general manager. The course the two of them would soon set for the franchise was not yet fully formed, and as such he asked Buccaneer fans – represented that day by the TOBA audience – for patience. As it turns out, he and Licht would change their minds on that front. Drastically.
“I know we're working diligently – hard – right now to put a team on the field that they'll be proud of,” said Smith a few days after that engagement. “Right now we're just asking them to bear with us, and eventually you'll like what you're going to see out there. They welcomed us with open arms, for us to do that, so that's what we're going to do."
Smith wasn’t attempting some sort of misdirection when he preached patience one day and then enacted a strategy built on the opposite idea the next. That truly was the message he wanted to deliver on January 20, and he wasn’t going to dance around it. Running a football team necessitates certain levels of secrecy; draft strategies and offensive game plans would fail without it. But when it comes to interacting with people – his players, his staff, the fans – he believes in directness and honesty. He believes in transparency, wherever it doesn’t affect strategy.
It is for that reason that Smith welcomed this “First 100 Days” intrusion, something never asked of any of his nine predecessors, with open arms. Of the 10 head coaches the Buccaneers have employed in their four-decade history, the author has worked for six of them. Some were gregarious, most were open and forthcoming, all were professional. None ever granted the sort of access that Smith allowed for this unprecedented inside look at his job, and at such a formative time. The author, and often even camera crews, were allowed into private coaches’ sessions, team meetings with the players, Smith’s office during working hours, even his makeshift home at the Residence Inn.
No topic was considered off limits and no question was rebuffed. Some questions, admittedly, were not answered. Let’s be real: No coach is going to share certain information with a non-football employee, even the equivalent of an embedded reporter. And since the interviews conducted for our “First 100 Days” project also produced some immediate content for the Buccaneers’ website, there were certain issues on which Smith – for reasons that would later become obvious – chose not to offer up information that would have made those stories too forthcoming at the wrong time.
For example, Darrelle Revis was a Tampa Bay Buccaneer when Smith’s plane first landed in Tampa, but he was a New England Patriot 100 days later. Smith didn’t arrive in town with a burning desire to slice from his roster one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, but somewhere in the interim he and Jason Licht decided that it was a necessary move to build the team in the manner they desired. The idea of releasing or trading Revis first surfaced in the media in February, which made it an obvious topic for one of the many interviews that made up this feature. Smith chose to emphasize the (very accurate) point that a shutdown cornerback was a good fit for any defensive system, including his. He did not choose to get into the salary cap-distribution issues that were the true driving force behind Revis’s eventual release. Nor could he be blamed for that, even if his answers in late February gave no indication of what was really coming in March.
Those reasons eventually came to light, and they are part of this story. There were, as well, occasional pieces of information shared that – once again for strategic reasons – were deemed off-limits for direct publication in this feature. Nevertheless, they helped shape the narrative and were part of the extraordinary access allowed by Smith. The author enjoyed something that he had never experienced in more than two decades of work in the NFL, but that wasn’t Smith’s goal. Rather, he sought that transparency that would tell Buccaneer fans that we are all in this together.
“We're building our brand, as much as anything," said Smith. "I believe in giving the fans as much access as possible. That will help them understand what their team is doing, how we're doing it. There's only one first time for us to come through here. It's a new day.”
Lovie Smith's first order of business upon taking over as the Buccaneers' head coach was to form his staff and help with the search for a general manager. Those tasks were completed quickly, as you'll see, and that was good because Smith was eager to get on to his second order of business: Evaluating the roster.
Smith didn't come into the situation blind. He spent the entire 2013 season studying game tape for his consulting work with the NFL. He paid a little extra attention to a handful of teams that looked as if they might be poised for a change. The Buccaneers were one of those teams, and Smith had formed some rudimentary opinions about the roster. It didn't take an expert in the Cover Two defense, for instance, to know that Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David were perfect building blocks. Smith knew the offensive line was struggling and the defensive front wasn't applying enough pressure. He knew about Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson, Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson.
Smith also knew about Mike Greenberg.
Greenberg sits in an office a few paces from that of the general manager, and has since 2010. As the team's director of football administration, he handles most of the contract work with players and their agents. In recent years, under General Manager Mark Dominik, he had structured a number of bigger deals in such a fashion that made them almost immune from the "dead money" that can tie up a salary cap and make it difficult to turn over the roster. The Buccaneers could, for instance, step away from Darrelle Revis's $16 million contract and not take any cap hit; they could immediately redirect those assets if they saw fit. That doesn't mean they will do so without a thorough analysis of the situation – it certainly wasn't decided in January while the staff was still being formed – but it is an option.
Every new head coach wants to rework the roster with the type of players he believes he can succeed with, particularly because they're usually inheriting teams that had been struggling. It's not always possible, but in this case one major advantage to inheriting the corner office at One Buccaneer Place was not inheriting a salary cap that would necessitate slow change.
"As I looked at it, Mike Greenberg did a great job with how he structured salaries, so we had an opportunity to reshape the roster the way we wanted to," said Smith. "That was attractive from the start. Because when you come in, change is a part of it. When you're 4-12, there's going to be change, especially with a new staff. To be able to start off with a foundation but to be able to branch out in any way we wanted to…that was appealing."
From January 21 to February 13, Smith and new General Manager Jason Licht spent most of their waking hours evaluating the 79 players who made up the Buccaneers' roster at the end of the 2013 season (including practice squad players and men on injured reserve). On February 13, they looked at the results. They looked at Greenberg's contracts. They looked at that 4-12 record, the sixth straight one that had no postseason addendum. They looked at a fan base that had once sold out Raymond James Stadium for every home game over 12 straight seasons. They looked at the list of players likely to become unrestricted free agents, including a whopping 19 of their own.
Smith and Licht looked at all of this and said to each other, "Forget patience." It was that moment that shaped Lovie Smiths' First 100 Days more than any other.
"We just decided that we couldn't ask our fans to be patient anymore," said Smith. "We needed to do whatever we could to win now, and we felt like we had a plan that would work. We weren't going to sit back and wait. We were going to attack this, and the fans were going to see that we were serious about making this team better right away.
"We evaluated our roster and said, 'These are the positions we need to change.' It's as simple as that, really. We felt we really needed more of an overhaul of the roster. The plan isn't for us to be in this situation ever again, but this is something that was definitely needed.
"This is how I've always looked at free agency: If you think that there's someone out there that will improve your ballclub and is a good fit, you want to bring them in. And as many guys that are out there that you think are a good fit, you bring them in right away. You can't just wait on the draft. We're not going to start rebuilding this year in order to be better next year. No, it's about this year."
The Bucs' roster reshaping would eventually involve almost as many high-profile departures as arrivals, and that was part of what made the eventual blitz through free agency so unexpected. Smith and Licht were playing with more house money than anyone realized.
"We had options, even with a Darrelle Revis," said Smith. "That was a lot of money. That wasn't a hit we were going to take – we could swap out. Everybody looked at what they thought was our cap space, but we really had a lot more. We had almost unlimited cap space because of the contracts we could switch out."
Smith walked into One Buccaneer Place as the new head coach on January 5. On January 21, he was joined by new General Manager Jason Licht, and over the next three weeks the two of them formed opinions about the team's roster and the players they thought would be available. They would have another four weeks to formulate a specific plan for the start of the new league year, which most importantly would bring unrestricted free agency. But they knew, well before March, that they were going big. This was no time for patience.
The hiring of former Cal Head Coach Jeff Tedford did not happen during Lovie Smith's First 100 Days, at least not as defined here. Our countdown begins on January 5, when Smith first walked through the doors of One Buccaneer Place, but he actually accepted the head coaching position on January 2. He brought Tedford aboard just two days later, midway between his own hiring and his introductory press conference.
That press conference fell on January 6, and that same day the Buccaneers named Leslie Frazier, the former Minnesota Vikings head coach, as their defensive coordinator. Three days later, Kevin O'Dea took the job of special teams coordinator, completing the upper level of the coaching staff. Even extending the timeline back to the day Smith was hired, that's still only a week to surround the head coach with his three most important assistants.
Moreover, O'Dea was part of a minor stampede of assistants into One Buccaneer Place on January 9. Before that day was up, the team had announced nine other hires, including former Bucs Pro Bowler Hardy Nickerson for the linebackers and Rod Marinelli acolyte Joe Cullen for the D-line. Two others – Cornerbacks Coach Gill Byrd and Tight Ends Coach Jon Embree – were essentially done on that day as well but weren't announced until the following afternoon. That would leave just two open spots – offensive line and assistant defensive line – and they would be filled by January 24.
Contrast that with the previous coaching changeover two years earlier, when the final assistant was announced on February 23, a month after Greg Schiano's hiring. In 2009, Raheem Morris was named head coach on January 17 and his final assistant was officially in place on February 11. The decisiveness of the Buccaneers' ownership in 2014 helped; of the seven new NFL head coaches named in January, Smith and Houston's Bill O'Brien were first, on the second. Cleveland's Mike Pettine was the last, on the 23rd.
All of them came with webs of coaching contacts, naturally bringing some assistants along from their previous team or – as in Smith's case – getting some of the old gang back together. But there are always some well-regarded coaches between jobs for whatever reason, and it's nice to be able to choose before the game of musical chairs stops. For example, Pettine got the job in Cleveland because the Browns' management had chosen to move on from Rob Chudzinski after just one year, and that move made Cullen and two other seasoned coaches, Jon Embree (tight ends) and George Warhop (offensive line), surprisingly available. Smith swooped in to snare all three of them.
And, of course, it was fortuitous for Smith that he was able to step right in and offer Frazier a cushy landing spot just days after he was relieved of the head job in Minnesota.
"There was some competition for coaches," Smith confirmed. "That's why getting the job right away and being able to jump on putting the staff together was critical, really. I knew who George Warhop was. I hadn't worked with Leslie but I knew him. It really was pretty smooth putting this staff together."
Six members of Smith's final staff had previously worked with him in Chicago, most of them departing with him after the 2012 season, in which they helped guide the Bears to a 10-6 record. Running Backs Coach Tim Spencer was on Smith's staff during his entire nine-year run. Assistant Defensive Line Coach Mike Phair – who could also trace his NFL roots back to Tampa during a previous stint as a college scout – was the only one of that group that had stayed on with the Bears in 2013 but he eagerly rejoined Smith when he had the chance.
Nickerson had spent just one year with the Bears in 2007, his only season as an NFL coach. At the time, he found the time commitment to be too much, but with his three children now mostly grown – Hardy Jr. plays linebacker at Cal, his own alma mater – Nickerson was just looking to get back into coaching. He had considered the college ranks but Smith's return to the NFL opened that door for him again.
All of this came at a time of year when there generally isn't much interaction between coaches and the media, at least for teams out of the Super Bowl hunt. Assistant coach hires are accompanied by press releases and nuts-and-bolts biographies. His career started here; he spent six seasons here; he coached these Pro Bowl players. There generally isn't much insight into the reasons certain men wind up on a coach's staff, but Smith was happy to speak at length about the process because he knew it was such an important part of establishing his "regime" during those First 100 Days.
"Some of the guys I had a relationship with that was long-standing," he said. "I know who they are, and when you have a choice, you're going to go with somebody you know, and you know how good they are. They know the system we're going to put in place and how we like to do things. They can help the others adjust and they can help me set the tone for the entire team."
Of course, Lovie Smith didn't really throw an NFL coaching staff together in five days. He had spent much of the previous fall discussing a joint venture with Tedford, who had been the head coach at Cal for almost the same time frame (2002-12) that Smith was in Chicago. Smith's defensive roots and the success his Bears teams had on that side of the ball had caused some to label him, fairly or not, as a one-dimensional head coach. Smith didn't track down Tedford – the two didn't know each other before last year – as a counter to that label, but rather because the year off had given him some time to think outside the box in putting together his staff. The two formed an easy kinship and Smith knew what his first hire would be when he got that second head coaching job he was sure was coming.
He had many of his other assistants waiting in the wings, as well. He probably could have filled in every blank except perhaps defensive coordinator ahead of time, but he chose not to go that far. When he was living the nomadic life of a college assistant coach in the '80s and '90s – and racking up those 18 different 'previous mailing addresses' – Smith had gotten his own NFL break through word of mouth. Smith was one of a handful of relatively unknown coaches from the college ranks that filled out Tony Dungy's staff in 1996, and those hires turned out spectacularly – Smith, Marinelli and Clyde Christensen are all still prominent NFL coaches today.
"A part of a scout's responsibility is not only to go out and scout players, but is to scout coaches also in the college ranks," said Smith. "We ask our scouts, as you're going around, just kind of keep a list of good coaches you think are out there in the college ranks, also. I was recommended by the scouts, and then there were a couple guys I'd worked with on the staff. I had never met Tony Dungy until then. The first time I met Tony was when I interviewed.
"We were all college guys, didn't know each other. Just like a college player who's not in the NFL yet, there are some guys from college who are going to come into the NFL and do well. I took that approach from back then – I wanted to look through the college ranks to find some up-and-coming coaches."
"That's why you want to keep some of the positions open, to see if the next great mind is out there, some of the young guys coming up the ranks," Smith continued. "I wanted to try to keep it that way a little bit. For the most part, I had 80% of the staff done almost immediately. On purpose a little bit I wanted to wait and see who was out there at a couple positions. I didn't know Marcus Arroyo. Some of the guys Jeff had worked with. Jon Embree, I knew."
Smith purposely aimed for diversity on his coaching staff. In 2006, he and Dungy became the first two African-American head coaches to lead their teams to the Super Bowl – Dungy's Colts beat Smith's Bears – but Smith didn't just mean racial diversity. He ended up with a mix of college and NFL guys, with lifers like Larry Marmie and fresh faces like Arroyo, with men he had worked alongside before and others he had never met until January.
"I wanted guys with a certain amount of knowledge, but I also wanted my staff to have a certain look," said Smith. "You look at Tampa Bay, at Gasparilla, look at all the different people you saw down there. I wanted our staff to have that same feel as Tampa. I also wanted it to have some experience, but you've got to have youth too, and then some guys in between. As I put the staff together, there was a certain criteria, a certain look I wanted on my staff."
He also collected a wide base of experience and connections to go with his own core of former Bears assistants. He believed that would help, too, in targeting players that the Bucs might want to bring into the fold.
"We have men from other organizations," said Smith. "We have Larry Marmie from Oakland, who was the pro personnel director for the Oakland Raiders. We have George Warhop and Jon Embree coming from Cleveland. Mikal [Smith] was with Dallas last year. Gill and I watched an entire league together during this past year. Jeff Tedford's around…we're all from different places and you can draw on that experience, too, of actually knowing personally some of the players."
In one respect, however, Smith looked for uniformity. There was a certain set of traits he needed each of his assistants to possess, and it was essentially the same thing Dungy looked for when he had such success assembling his crew in 1996. Smith has a two-word model for the type of coach he's looking for that he repeats often: “Stern teacher.”
While Smith's hiring practices do mimic Dungy's, his preferences were formed long before he came to Tampa in 1996. Smith had – and still maintains – close relationships with several of his high school teachers and coaches and he brings up their names frequently during casual chats. He spent a year teaching at his high school alma mater after college and clearly has a fond spot for those who spend their life in that sometimes underappreciated profession.
"You go back to school, the teachers that you remember, they taught a certain way," he said, throwing out such names from his past as Mrs. Robinson, Mrs. White and Mrs. Pace, the last of whom was an English teacher of his who remains a friend today. "They showed you how to solve a problem. They were patient with you. They were demanding and, if they needed to be, stern to get their point across. They didn't curse in the classroom. There was a certain way that we were taught that worked for us to actually learn.
"Teachers have had a big influence on my life. I was always interested in how they were able to teach you. My coaching is based on teachers that I had and how they got their point across. They present a problem and give you a way to solve it. That's exactly what players are looking for. There's a problem on the field…how do we solve it? They want answers to their problems. When a guy does something wrong it's, 'This is what you did wrong. This is how you need to correct it.' That's how teachers always reacted to me."
Lovie Smith walked into One Buccaneer Place with a checklist…well, several checklists, really, but one in particular regarded how he personally would spend his working days. He had built a routine during his years in charge in Chicago, and to some extent in St. Louis, and he felt comfortable in it. He wanted to duplicate as much of it as possible in his new environment.
This was Lovie Smith on Day Two:
"We're going through everything now – schedule, practice, whatever – every little thing that comes up, I've been through it. I have that checklist, and we're working our way down it – check, check, check. It takes a little while to get it all in place. There's a certain way, for instance, that my computer has to be set up. There's a certain place my video needs to be stored. There's a routine to everything – what I eat, when I work out. The whole routine is down, and I'm just stepping right back into it. This is the way I work."
While Smith will spend the next couple weeks surrounding himself with men who share his detail-oriented approach and need for long-range planning, he isn't looking for clones. He wants results, and he wants a certain overall approach – again, the stern teacher is the model – but he doesn't intend to micromanage.
This is clear on Day 25, when for the first time he brings his entire coaching staff together for a meeting. This takes place in the room right next to Jason Licht's office, which usually serves as draft headquarters. There are, in fact, already boards with prospects' names lining the walls, though they are still waiting to truly take shape. Everyone is early.
This is the kind of meeting that takes place hundreds of times a year, sometimes with different subsets of the staff, and is always private. Obviously, many of these meetings involve player evaluations or game strategy, neither of which is of the team's interest to share publicly. This meeting is private, too, but it is more a general discussion of policy.
If this were a president's First 100 Days, he'd be speaking to his cabinet about procedures – meeting times, lines of communication, dealing with the press. Smith tells his cabinet that they are going to get more information than they've ever had before as a football coach, and that some of it would be sensitive. In other words, there was going to be another level of transparency within the football offices, and that required a certain level of trust, as well.
He goes through the basics: Where to park, what to wear at the office, when to be at work. He tells his staff that the basic work hours are eight to five, Monday through Friday, which doesn't sound much like a typical NFL coach's schedule. In reality, some will choose to work more, but Smith doesn't want grinding just for the sake of grinding. "Work as long as you need to in order to get the job done," he tells them.
There are lists. Goals include winning every home game, competing for the division title every year and, of course, taking home the Lombardi Trophy. There are five characteristics of a coach on his staff, which include loyalty and honestly, and Smith says that he knows every man in the room has those characteristics or they wouldn't be in that room.
There are philosophies, too. This one applies to the whole team: "To play tough and relentless, fundamentally sound (emphasis his) situational football on every play." On offense, the team will have a balance between a physical rushing attack and an opportunistic passing attack. On the other side, they will play aggressive gap-control defense predicated on creating takeaways – stressing that these are "takeaways," and not "turnovers," the former of which implies control and the latter chance. On special teams, they want to create at least two big plays per game.
As always, Smith keeps his meetings brief and to the point. It may be January 29, and it's more than two months until the 2014 schedule will even be announced, let alone any actual games to be played. Yet there is much to do and there's no need to delay that work with any unnecessary talking.
"We're a 4-12 team," says Smith. "We need to be working, finding a way to win some football games."
Had the Buccaneers left the general manager's office untouched at the end of the 2013 season, that G.M. would have led the search for the team's head coach. Instead, the team chose to bring in a whole new leadership structure, and the first hire, while the embers of the '13 season were still glowing, was Lovie Smith. Logically, that meant Smith would be involved in the search for the new G.M., as those two would be forming a partnership that had to work harmoniously.
The fact that Smith had formed innumerable relationships and developed a long list of contacts during 17 seasons in the league made him the obvious choice to lead that search, too. The same mind that allowed him to greet by name Buccaneers staffers he hadn't seen in more than a decade served him well in forming a list of NFL executives about whom he wanted to find out more.
Wasting no time after his arrival in Tampa, Smith lined up a list of interviews, eventually meeting with nine candidates for the Bucs' G.M. post. Some of those he met at One Buccaneer Place, others he brought to his hotel instead to keep the dealings as private as possible.
They were thorough. Each one of those interviews lasted at least three-and-a-half hours. The longest of them rolled on for five hours and never got tedious. Smith later said he was impressed by all the candidates, that he didn't have a single bad interview. He recommended four of those nine to meet with the Glazers. For some, there were callbacks.
"We had several different rounds," said Smith. "I met with all of them. We felt that it was important that it was somebody I was comfortable with, and that he was comfortable with me."
The last person to meet with Smith, and the last candidate presented to the Glazers, was Jason Licht, the Arizona Cardinals' vice president of player personnel.
"There were good interviews before Jason," said Smith. "All of the guys did an excellent job. A lot of them we just talked football, clinic-ed each other on different things, which was just great. Football discussions on how you do things, how you look at all the different facets of putting a program together, free agency, practice, everything."
With Licht, it just clicked. Given that his first interview ran somewhere between four and five hours, it's hard to say if he and Smith clicked immediately, but at some point during that long morning they found common ground.
"As we were going through different things, important things about how to build and run a football team, we just kept saying the same things," said Smith. "We had the same core beliefs. We had the same ideas about what makes players successful. We felt the same way about communicating in the workplace. I was comfortable with Jason right away, and I think he was comfortable with me."
That was what Smith and the Glazers needed to know, because there was no questioning Licht's resume. In previous stops in Miami, Philadelphia, New England and Arizona, he had worked with a long list of highly successful coaches, from Jimmy Johnson to Bill Belichick to Andy Reid. He had experienced Super Bowl seasons with three different franchises. And he had left behind many admirers as he climbed through the ranks, starting as a scouting department assistant with the Miami Dolphins in 1995.
If Smith needed references, Licht had them.
"Everybody has their history," said Smith, and it's a phrase he uses a lot, often turning it on himself. "You have a record on what you've accomplished, what you've done, places you've been. All the experience he has, the guys he's worked with. I have friends in the profession, and it meant a lot what Andy Reid had to say about Jason, among other guys that I trust and that knew him."
Smith himself had met Licht when the latter interviewed for a similar job with the Bears just before the 2012 season. The Bears went with Phil Emery, who had previously scouted for the organization, and then a season later dismissed Smith, with Emery bringing in Marc Trestman to replace him. Smith had been impressed with Licht, however, so it was no surprise that he made a point of including him in the Bucs' search. The meeting in Chicago was short, but Smith had taken time to research Licht more extensively in the interim, and had liked what he'd seen.
Because Smith arrived before Licht, and had a major hand in the G.M. search, the media unsurprisingly gnawed on the bone of which man was really in charge. Neither was it surprising that Smith and Licht chose not to answer that question directly. Smith knew it was more important to find a G.M. with whom he could truly form a decision-making partnership. There would be common ideas, but there would also be a division of labor. Smith knew he would be counting on the general manager to get him the types of players that he needed to succeed; the wrong choice would set everyone back, including himself.
"You have to have clarity," said Smith. "You need clarity with absolutely everything you're doing. When I say clarity, it means, as a coaching staff, here is exactly what we're looking for: Here are the dimensions of a receiver. He's this height, he's this weight, this speed, these are his measurables. The scouts get video: 'Here's the ideal guy for us. This is the guy we're looking for at this position. That video doesn't have to be a current Buccaneer; it can be anybody in the league. It might even be a player from the past. It might be a three-technique [defensive tackle] we're looking for, and it's Warren Sapp. Right now, for us, three-technique, we're looking for Gerald McCoy. WILL linebacker – yeah, that's Derrick Brooks but it's also Lavonte David. That's the ideal guy at that position. In an ideal world, this is a profile, on paper and in video, of what we want.
"For Jason and I, that means getting on the same page. That means being two guys who can get on the same page. How do we do that? Watching video together. Spending time together. Looking at guys. That's how we're going to make every decision on personnel. It's workouts and all that, but then it's watching video together. It's interviewing them, talking to people we trust, seeing what they've done on paper and then watching them play."
Because he was queued up so late in the rotation of candidates, things moved very fast for Licht. His last interview with the Buccaneers was on January 19, he was named the new G.M. on January 21 and he held his introductory press conference at One Buccaneer Place on January 24. Licht then returned to Phoenix to take care of some housekeeping items, but was due back in Tampa on the 28th. Smith knew that time was rapidly becoming compressed before the start of the new league year, and he wanted Licht's attention as soon as possible. They had video sessions to conduct. Many, many video sessions.
In fact, these two weren't going to be just partners for the next few months; they were practically going to be each other's family.
"Jason's wife, Blair, is back in Arizona," said Smith, on the day before Licht was to arrive back at One Buc Place. "My wife, MaryAnne, is up in Lake Forest. So we're going to be spending a lot of time together, Jason and I. We're going to get to know each other very well."
Lovie Smith wasn't new to the community when he arrived in January. In fact, it was his previous stint as a mentor to Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles in the 1990s, and his connection to the group that turned the floundering Buccaneers franchise around, that drove the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his hire. The Bay area didn't just welcome Smith to town after the New Year, it joyously welcomed him home.
In turn, Smith welcomed his role as the new face of the franchise without hesitation. Just days after his arrival, as he talked about the groundwork that would be laid during his First 100 Days, Smith said it was a high-priority goal of his to influence the Buccaneers' work in the community. He intended to be the team's leader in that regard, as well, and he planned a typically thorough and detailed approach. He wanted the Bucs' community efforts to mean something to the players and coaches involved, and that meant finding out what really mattered to each of them.
For instance, Smith's own heart had been touched by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa during his family's previous stay in Florida. His two youngest boys were regulars in the Clubs' programs and he and MaryAnne later lured one of the Club directors in Tampa to Chicago for a similar post. Smith's family also has a history of diabetes, so he intends to steer some of the team's efforts in that direction as well. Over time, his plan is to find similar passions in his players and coaches and find ways to act on them.
There is time for these pursuits, however, and plenty of staffers in the organization to help him. With little contact with his players until April, and with his coaches and personnel men grinding during those First 100 Days to evaluate and shape the roster, the more detailed shaping of that community outreach will come later. That said, Smith himself is ready almost upon his arrival to get out into the public. His first real chance to stand in front of a community gathering as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers comes just over two weeks after he steps out of that private jet with Jackson in his arms.
The appearance came together quickly, and with few aware it was going to happen. Every year, dating back to the early '80s, the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs (TOBA) holds a Leadership Breakfast on the morning of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Football is not usually a topic. Community leaders deliver ardent speeches on unity and issue calls to action on issues that affect African-Americans in the Bay area. At this year's breakfast, for instance, U.S. Congresswoman Kathy Castor spoke on ways to address income inequality while Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a charismatic speaker in front of any crowd, pledged not to let anyone divide the community. Awards are given out, as well, to "Unsung Heroes," "Civic Leaders" and "Corporate Leaders."
The TOBA breakfast was planned well before Smith's appointment as head coach, but the opportunity is too perfect to ignore. Smith is extended an invite to speak just a week before the event, and he quickly accepts. There isn't even time to add his appearance to the printed program, so many of the hundreds in attendance are unaware that the new Bucs coach will be taking the podium.
But he does take the podium, and on a morning that includes a long list of prominent speakers, he draws the one standing ovation. He is warmed by the reception, but also touched by the significance of this particular event as his first public appearance. Before the breakfast begins, he speaks at length with local media about what Dr. King has meant to his own life, how King's sacrifices made his own successful career a possibility. He shares that he has a picture of King in his office at One Buccaneer Place, and strong memories of his own mother telling him to eliminate the word "can't" from his vocabulary.
A few days later, reflecting on that initial community foray, he can still feel the emotions of the event. He won't forget it soon.
"There's only one first, and that was the first time I was able to get out in the community…and on a special day," he said. "One of the reasons I'm here is based on what Martin Luther King, Jr. did many years ago. I've just benefited from what guys like him did back then. So it was special to have my first official function be with that group. And you always want to be welcomed a certain way into a community, and I got chill bumps on my body walking up to the stage."
Of course, this crowd had more than its share of passionate Buccaneer fans, and while they appreciated Smith's words on the meaning of the day, they also wanted to hear his plans for the team's future. Again, it is at this event where Smith first pitched the idea of "patience" to Buccaneer fans. He swore that his team would be "relentless in our pursuit of bringing the Super Bowl trophy back to Tampa," but he knew it might take a little time to right the ship. Tony Dungy's staff led the team to a 6-10 record in their first year, 1996, before the memorable playoff breakthrough in '97. Smith couldn't have been blamed for believing that the transition for his own team might take more than one season, too. No incoming coach could really be blamed for thinking that way, even if they intend to do whatever it takes to compete right away.
Several days later, Smith was still of that mindset. It would be, roughly, another two weeks before he and Licht would decide to chart a vastly different course, one that was based not on asking for patience but on committing to giving Buccaneer fans what they craved as soon as possible.
During her speech, Congresswomen Castor urged the crowd to utilize their rights as voters, calling the vote, 'the great equalizer.' "Our lives begin to end when we become silent on issues that matter," said Castor.
Eventually, when the Buccaneers' free agency frenzy was in full swing, Smith would reveal the decision he and Licht had come to in February, the one that would place aggressiveness over patience. In doing so, he took a promise to the fans that could have been left implicit and made it explicit. He spoke the words and in so doing shaped the area's expectations. He could have just as well let the Bucs' roster-shaping actions speak for themselves, but he wasn't afraid of those expectations and he wasn't afraid of failure. Smith's mother, channeling Dr. King's message, told her son to dream big. That's exactly what Lovie Smith was doing during his First 100 Days as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach.
Lovie Smith didn't agree with the Chicago Bears' decision to let him go after his ninth season as head coach, which ended in a 10-6 record and a tiebreaker ouster from the playoff field. Chicago won its last two games with Smith on the sideline, both on the road, both with postseason elimination hanging over its head.
Smith didn't agree with his dismissal, but that move ended up agreeing with him. Not only did he take maximum advantage of his year away from the sideline, but he also realized just how deep his passion for the profession still was. At age 55, Lovie Smith wanted it more than ever before. He almost wished he had a way to share that experience with all of his charges so they would never lack for motivation.
"Every player, when he initially comes into the league, should get cut right away," Smith said wistfully. "He would appreciate it so much more when he came back if he had to stay out for a year."
Of course, no player is actually going to appreciate being cut, no more than Smith liked hearing a goodbye from the Bears in January of 2013. It goes without saying that asking a player to hand back his playbook is an event that nobody enjoys, and yet it happens dozens and dozens of times a year. The first time Smith had to pull that trigger as head coach of the Buccaneers was on his 37th day in office, and one of the men dismissed was a player he had drafted in Chicago just a few years before.
In 2011, the Bears made Gabe Carimi their first-round pick, taking the former Wisconsin standout 29th overall. It made sense; the Bears had rebounded to an 11-5 record in 2010 after treading water for two post-Super Bowl seasons, but the offensive line, with Frank Omiyale and J'Marcus Webb as the tackles, was a weak spot. Chicago ranked 22nd in the NFL in rushing in 2010, even with Matt Forte playing as well as ever, and Jay Cutler had been sacked a whopping 52 times.
It didn't work out for the Bears and Carimi, however. Injuries clipped all but two games of his rookie season, and in 2012 he bounced between right guard and right tackle without distinguishing himself. Looking for some depth up front, the Buccaneers sent a sixth-round pick to the Bears in the spring of 2013 to bring Carimi to Tampa. He would end up starting two games at left guard as the Bucs looked for a solution to the absence of Carl Nicks.
The change of scenery did not revive Carimi's career in 2013, but he was still just 25 years old. There was time for his NFL story to go in another direction. Smith wanted Carimi to have as much of that time at his disposal as he could. The Buccaneers' internal roster evaluation, nearly complete on February 10, had led them to the conclusion that the offensive line needed a serious makeover. That would become more evident in the days right before and after the opening bell of free agency, but the first move was to let Carimi go early in the process.
The Bucs made four moves on the 10th of February; none were earth-shaking, but they did represent the beginning of the conversion of the roster from the previous regime to one that fit what Lovie Smith and Jason Licht wanted to do. The Bucs released quarterback Jordan Rodgers, defensive tackle Derek Landri, running back Michael Hill and Smith's old Bears acquaintance, Gabe Carimi.
"We want to do what's best for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but at the same time I want to do what's best for the players," said Smith. "I was with Gabe in Chicago and I'd like to say Gabe will always be a friend. I knew we were going in another direction, so I wanted to get to him as soon as possible and give him the best opportunity to get on with his new team. Some of the other players, I didn't get a chance to meet – Rodgers, Hill – but our evaluations say we were going in a different direction. Once we see that a player doesn't fit in with what we want to do, we're going to give him an opportunity to move on."
Carimi didn't have to wait long or travel far to get his next NFL shot, signing with the Atlanta Falcons on February 18. Hill went back to Green Bay, the team from whose practice squad the Bucs had plucked him in November to help out a thinned running back corps. Rodgers, the brother of the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, landed in Miami but was then released again in May. Landri, who has played seven years in the league, just one as a full-time starter (Carolina in 2010), had not yet caught on with a new club as of July.
Smith didn't know the specifics when he walked into One Buccaneer Place on January 5, but he obviously knew there would be some tough decisions ahead. The release of Carimi would eventually pale in comparison to some big-name departures that Smith and Licht would deem necessary. Still, these are the kinds of judgments a head coach knows will always be on the horizon. It's expected, if not enjoyed; a necessary evil.
Then there are the unexpected developments. When Smith took over in early January, he knew he had to fashion a whole new coaching staff and reshape the roster. He had some other definite changes in mind – a new director of player engagement, some additions to the football analytics department, even some minor changes to the building itself. There were some other assets, like the One Buc building itself, that were solidly in place. One of those appeared to be the training staff, which was headed by the highly-respected Todd Toriscelli, a Buccaneer since 1997.
That changed in early February when Toriscelli chose to accept the head training position with the Tennessee Titans, where he was reunited with General Manager Ruston Webster, formerly of the Bucs' personnel department. Toriscelli's #2 man, Director of Rehabilitation Shannon Merrick, had also departed for job in the private sector. Smith had used much of a year to plan the construction of his coaching staff; the task of restoring the training staff had to be taken care of immediately.
"That was not part of the equation," said Smith. "Coming in, I knew there was no general manager in place, as well as parts of the football staff, such as player development and strength and conditioning. But no, we had a trainer in place and we weren't really thinking about that issue."
He knew he had to act quickly, not only because there were active player rehab programs that needed to be maintained but because there is always competition for the best talent in the NFL, no matter the job.
"At every position, you have to have a backup plan," said Smith. "It's just like when you get in a game and you have a play called…I'm on offense, I'm the quarterback and I have a play called. I think they're in base coverage and all of a sudden they blitz. You have to have built-in blitz beaters. The same thing: You have to have guys in mind for just about every position in the organization. It's just like what the pro personnel guys are doing year-round to make sure we're ready for any contingency, scouting every player at every position."
On February 7, Day 34 for Smith as the Bucs' coach and the same day the Titans officially announced Toriscelli's hiring, Tampa Bay introduced Bobby Slater as its new head athletic trainer. John Ames stayed on as an assistant from the previous staff and was joined by Scott DeGraff and Adrian Dixon. The team's roster of physicians was also revamped, with Dr. Arnold Ramirez coming aboard as head team physician and Dr. Chuck Nofsinger as head team orthopedic surgeon.
It is Slater that Smith will come to rely on to provide him with recommendations on player availability on Sundays, and to keep the roster as hale as possible during the season. It's a smooth transition for Smith because Slater was on his staff in Chicago and the two have already run the gamut of NFL experiences together. The trust between them is implicit, and Smith doesn't expect anything to catch Slater by surprise in his new role.
"When you're new on a team, or when you start over, a lot of the time you haven't worked with a lot of the people on staff, and seen them in every situation, been in every situation with them," said Smith. "When Todd left, it was fortunate for us that we were able to bring in Bobby. Nine years with someone, you have a chance to go through just about everything. You name it, we've done it together. We've prepared for a Hall of Fame game, we've been in a Super Bowl together, Super Bowl week, every week of the playoffs, just about every imaginable injury you can think of. Neck, concussion, ankle, hamstring. And the communication – even though Bobby wasn't the head trainer he was very involved in all of that. Communication is critical, just as it is between Jason and I, and that won't be a problem with Bobby."
Slater and his staff step right in to continue the work of returning such players as Doug Martin, Mike James and Connor Barth to unrestricted action. They won't be taping ankles or treating cramps for another two months, however, as the offseason program doesn't begin until April 7. While Smith and his crew are eager for that day to arrive, the head coach wants his players to relax during this prescribed down time on the NFL schedule. He doesn't necessarily expect to see any of the players around One Buc Place in February or March, though he doesn't mind it. He also doesn't mind when one of those players decides to poke his head into Smith's office for a quick introduction.
This happens in fits and bursts throughout January and February. Gerald McCoy is the first player to reach out to Smith after his hire, and Mike Glennon is the first one to come by team headquarters to meet him.
That latter introduction is colored by an interesting dynamic, because one of the main answers the media would like to get from Smith is whether he shares the previous coaching staff's view that Glennon was the team's long-term answer at quarterback. Glennon, who was drafted by Greg Schiano and Mark Dominik and quickly promoted past incumbent Josh Freeman as a rookie, has to wonder the same thing. How does his place in the organization in 2014 compare to what appeared to be a relatively secure spot under the previous regime?
As it turns out, the answers – because this is a complex situation with more than just a single answer – come relatively quickly, some of them during these First 100 Days and some of them after. The Buccaneers will sign former Bears quarterback Josh McCown early in free agency and declare him the top man on the depth chart heading into 2014. Later, after the pre-draft haziness is stripped away by what actually occurs on draft weekend, Smith will state his belief that Glennon is indeed the team's quarterback of the future. Privately, the team had let Glennon know this well before the draft.
Glennon hoped to get an early feel for Smith's assessment of him during that first meeting in the coach's office. Smith paraphrases the quarterback's opening remarks:
"Hey Coach, Mike Glennon, quarterback here. I can't wait to get started, I've heard a lot about you. What do I need to do? How do you see me?"
Smith was still in the evaluation process at this time, so there wasn't really a concrete answer, but he tried to put the young signal-caller at ease.
"The answer to his questions were, 'Hey Mike, I watched you an awful lot last year. I saw the improvement you made throughout the season. What do you need to do right now? Just keep working out. We have time.'
"This is a period of time now where they can relax a little bit, get away. I told him who his coach would be, Marcus Arroyo. Bringing in Jeff Tedford as your coordinator. I enjoyed talking with him and making plans for the future."
Lovie Smith's "job" during the year between his dismissal in Chicago and his hiring in Tampa was, as he put it, to make himself a better man for his family and a better coach for the next team he would lead. The Bears, who let him go with a year remaining on his contract, were providing the paycheck for this job, which certainly made it convenient.
So, Jackson got his one-on-one days with Grandpa, MaryAnne got impromptu weekend trips with her husband of 34 years and potential assistant coach candidates got phone calls from one very motivated man. Even so, that wasn't enough to keep Smith busy, so he took a consulting job with the NFL. Each week, he reviewed game tape sent to him by the league as part of a panel that reviewed the performances of referees.
Lots of game tape. Loads of it.
"When I was out last year, the Commissioner was great," said Smith. "When Jeff Fisher was out, they wanted an NFL head coach's presence in the NFL office for the year. They thought Jeff would get back, and they thought that I would get back in the next year. I went to New York once every two weeks and I was officially in the NFL officiating department. Dean Blandino and Alberto Riveron, all their supervisors would come in, there might have been about 16 of us, and we evaluated every call that was made the previous week.
"It was an unpaid position, since the Bears were paying. I would just hunker down in my basement. Monday, I would have video of every game that was played, every snap of every game. That obviously helped me an awful lot with the evaluation process."
That process was two-fold. In a larger sense, Smith was able to keep track of the performances of dozens of potential 2014 free agents. And, as the season progressed and some teams began to fall towards the bottom of the standings, Smith began to focus on some potential landing spots for himself. If and when teams started calling in January, he wanted to have a complete picture of the situations into which he could be stepping. The Buccaneers were one of those teams he decided to give a closer look.
"For me, it started when I was out, watching from afar," said Smith. "I watched the Buccaneers – I watched all the teams but I especially took notice of interesting things I saw on defense. I started looking at the roster back then, at the rosters of about eight teams. After I got the job, I immediately went and started watching video of the team, to confirm some of the things that I thought. I had plenty of video on hand thanks to my consulting job."
A weekend in his home office/football cave – where pajamas are totally acceptable all-day wear – gave Smith a chance to totally immerse himself in Buccaneer video review. It was obvious, of course, that the team had one massive tent pole in Gerald McCoy, a superstar-level player at the most important position in Smith's defense. Lavonte David also stood out, an all-pro WILL linebacker with Derrick Brooks written all over him. There were 79 players to contemplate, counting the end-of-year 53-man roster, the practice squad and various reserve lists.
That process, which Smith began in Chicago, would expand greatly upon his arrival at One Buccaneer Place, and even more so when Jason Licht joined him a few weeks later. It was almost exactly the same process that would be used to evaluate potential free agents prior to March 11, and that is a critical point in understanding the point of view with which Smith entered into his Buccaneer team review. When Smith envisioned what his 90-man offseason roster would look like, he was seeing a team that would be built from the current group plus the wider pool of possible free agents. When Smith evaluated Donald Penn and began thinking about whether he would remain the team's left tackle for an eighth straight season, he compared his tape to that of such likely free agents as Anthony Collins and Rodger Saffold. The Bucs wouldn't dive fully into their free agency plan until after their internal review was complete, but make no mistake: the prospects of the open market very much influenced the evaluations of January and February.
"What that evaluation consists of, first of all, is video," said Smith. "If we can meet with the guy in person, yes, that's good, find out more about him, his personal life and all that. But everybody has a history, a record of the things they've done. I was able to compile as much information as possible from within the organization. I watched video from all the games of last year and looked for how they would fit."
In his office, Smith has a 2013 Buccaneers media guide, of which only a handful of actually printed copies were produced. Of course, the head coach gets a printed copy if he wants one, and it's easy to see why Smith wants something he can hold. The book grows a bit tattered in February as Smith moves back and forth through the player bio section. When he meets with a player, and when he watches video, he makes notes. One thing he must prepare for is a very long list of impending free agents from his own roster – a total of 19 of them. They are not, for the most part, core names, but if they leave they will need to be replaced.
"Going through all that is difficult, but it just takes time as much as anything," said Smith. "You have to study that video, talk to as many people as you can, prepare notes. It's just a process that you go through. Normally, you wouldn't like to have that many free agents, but when you're coming in new you need to really evaluate everyone anyway. Whether they're your free agents or other free agents, we're evaluating everyone anyway, so it's not a big deal."
Smith watches video alone in his office, hours and hours of it. Licht does the same. They have scheduled meetings in which they compare notes and watch video together. They have unscheduled meetings, too, when either Smith or Licht sees something that he wants to immediately bring to the attention of the other. They text each other frequently. Smith refers to it as a "fluid" process, with both men ready to put their heads together at any hour, morning, noon or night.
"It's constant, throughout the day," said Smith. "It's not just one conversation. I think Jason and I have met three or more times a day most days, so it's constant communication. Watch a little video, like a guy…he'll come down here or I'll go down there. We had a workout on the football field today, looking at guys; we were there together. We had a speaking engagement downstairs in front of the leadership conference; we were down there together. It always goes back, for the most part, to personnel, in some way or another. Whether it's our own players or possible free agents."
Smith's coaches are involved, too. Everyone knows the templates of the types of players Smith and Licht are seeking, so that different coaches' evaluations can be uniform and comparable. There's an added level of difficulty because the players featured in the Buccaneers' 2013 game tape are not performing in the offensive or defensive schemes Smith will employ, but the basics are still the basics.
"You're not evaluating the scheme, but you can evaluate a player's athletic ability on tape," said Smith. "If you're a quarterback, you can evaluate his arm. If you're a running back, you can evaluate him just making moves in the open field; a receiver, how he runs routes. Those are universal things. As a pass-rusher…you can evaluate Gerald McCoy just being able to beat a one-on-one block. All of those kinds of things you can, just like you evaluate free agency. So that's kind of going hand-in-hand right now – we're evaluating our players and comparing them to what's available through unrestricted free agency."
Besides another pair of tape-watching eyes, the assistant coaches bring something else to the table when comparing the Bucs' current roster to potential free agents: recent experience with other teams. As good as tape is for evaluative purposes, actually interacting with a player on game day and during a practice week adds another layer of knowledge.
"Like I said, we have a lot of men from other organizations, like Larry Marmie and George Warhop," said Smith. "We've had our hands on some of these players, and some of them may end up playing for us."
Indeed, the Buccaneers will eventually end up with former Raiders cornerback Mike Jenkins, former Browns guard O'Neil Cousins and former Bears quarterback Josh McCown. Wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins, a former Tennessee Titan, played at Cal under Tedford. Licht helped bring linebacker Dane Fletcher, another Buccaneer free agency addition, to the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2010.
The video work is constant and somehow not tedious to Smith. At this point on the calendar, his wife MaryAnne is making frequent trips back and forth from Chicago, working on the family's transition to Tampa, finalizing a home purchase and so on. Lovie Smith's travels consist almost completely of an early morning drive from his hotel to One Buc and a late-evening trip in the opposite direction. On Sundays, he's trying to find a new church home. That's a priority task for Lovie and MaryAnne, and Lovie is getting help from a group of his assistant coaches. They fan out, visiting different congregations around town and comparing notes.
In that regard, it's almost like the task that is consuming every other day on the calendar. From Monday through Friday (and, yes, some Saturdays), videotape is king.
"Right now, you have to prioritize things," said Smith. "My life right now would be pretty boring to most everybody else. It's pretty much early in the morning to late in the night on this football team, the personnel. There's no substitute for video, watching it over and over."
On Day 40, Smith, Licht and the rest of the internal review crew meets one last time. Well, it will be far from the last meeting Smith will hold with his coaches, and he and Licht will surely have some more impromptu video sessions when one of them feels the need. But it is on this day that a last comparing of notes moves Smith into a new phase in his First 100 Days. All those hours of scrolling through tape have produced an actionable opinion on every one of the Bucs own free agents, and on the key players who are still under contract, with their salary cap hits an important part of the equation.
"It has gone well," said Smith. "I feel like we know our team as well as you can know them without meeting some of them, just looking at video. We feel like we have a pretty good grasp on the roster and we're ready to move forward."
Now it is time to formulate a strategy for attacking free agency. Remember, it is at this time that Smith and Licht make the decision that will shape one of the most remarkable offseasons in franchise history, the decision to eschew patience and stomp on the accelerator. Buccaneer fans are not aware of this yet – just as with the draft, it's bad strategy to tip your hand – but the plans are already in motion.
On the very February day that Lovie Smith and Jason Licht decide that their internal audit of the Buccaneers' roster is – for the purposes of charting a course for the next few months – complete, Smith is asked to swing by an early-evening party being held in the lobby at One Buc Place.
The party is a gathering of Stadium Club members, but it's far from a buttoned-up affair. There are people of all ages enjoying the event, from kids to grandparents. There are some suits, but there are also partygoers who are making their Bucs fandom known, from jerseys to jackets to one jewel-encrusted "BUCS" pin that brings an all-red outfit together.
Smith really could just make a quick circle of the crowd, shake some hands and sign some autographs, and everyone will be satisfied. It might, in fact, be what the partygoers are expecting. Instead, he grabs a microphone, provides a little background on what he and Licht are doing and then opens it up to the floor. He's relaxed and content. He does not appear to be in a hurry. In fact, when a Bucs staffer announces that there is time for "one or two more questions," surely following an agreed-upon itinerary, Smith says that he'll stay until everyone's questions have been answered.
Smith starts at the base of the "Moment of Victory" statue that commemorates the team's victory in Super Bowl XXXVII but soon ambles into the thick of the crowd, casually leaning against the receptionist's desk and inviting the fans to gather around. He's asked what drew him to the Buccaneers' job (Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David were a nice start), how he feels about Mike Glennon (good first impression, works hard), who his favorite players were as a kid (Roger Staubach and Bob Hayes).
At some point, he slips in, unsolicited, the fact that he and Licht have wrapped up their roster evaluation, and it's clear to everyone why he's so unhurried on this evening. Smith and Licht had gathered all the coaches and personnel men together for one final opportunity to compare notes that afternoon, and a consensus was reached – on where the roster needed work, on how the team would approach free agency, on which potential additions would be on their radar. That's the reason, he tells the crowd, that there is a big smile on his face.
It's soon obvious that the Buccaneers' marketing and member relations folks will be trying to arrange a Smith swing-by at all of their events. Fans who were sold on the idea of Lovie Smith taking over a month earlier are now charmed by the man himself. It's good will in the bank for Smith. He never dodges a question, never seems uncomfortable and always comes off as honest and forthcoming. He doesn't try to keep his distance or hurry through an interaction.
After the questions tail off, Smith spends some more time working the lobby, stopping for little chats with smaller knots of fans. The lady with the BUCS pin is the first to grab Smith after he puts down the microphone, steering him over to her husband so the two of them can talk to them about the game the team will play in Chicago the next fall. Her husband has a long-standing dentistry practice in Tampa and the two have been Buccaneer fans "forever." She couldn't be more thrilled about the choice of Smith as head coach: "He's going to be so wonderful for Florida, so wonderful the Bay area, so wonderful for the Buccaneers."
Later that evening, Smith is privately discussing the upcoming transition from roster evaluation to preparations for free agency and the draft, but he also talks for a while about the party in the lobby and other opportunities to interact with Buccaneer fans. He tells of an older gentleman he met in an unfortunate manner a few days earlier, when the man's car bumped Smith's car from behind on the way to work. It was a minor fender-bender, but the requisite exchanging of information is the spark for a conversation about the Buccaneers. And then a photo opportunity. The other man can't locate all the necessary information, so Smith gives him his phone number so he can call later, which he does. The whole episode clearly amuses Smith. He wants to immerse himself in the community, and sometimes that will mean getting your hands dirty…or having your fender dented.
Smith didn't allow himself too much time to enjoy the completion of the evaluation phase. His relaxed ease during the party in the lobby wasn't an affectation, but neither did it stay with him the rest of the evening. In fact, as soon as he left the lobby, Smith picked up the pace, walking briskly up a flight of stairs and to his office in the opposite corner of the building. He suddenly had a working agenda for the rest of the evening. Smith had plenty still to do, as it turned out, but he truly did value the opportunity to get to know a few dozen of the team's supporters.
"These are our fans," said Smith, as he walked back to his office. "If they've got questions, I want them to feel connected. There's total transparency with what we're doing. We want people to get their questions answered as best we can. Right now we can't answer a lot of questions, so the answer to the question is, 'We're working to get answers to them.' Hopefully we'll have them soon."
Many of those answers, in fact, would be answered during Lovie's First 100 Days.
Lovie Smith briefly makes it back to Chicago over the weekend following the completion of the internal roster review. Since it's a little less than a three-hour trip on I-65 from Chicago to Indianapolis, Smith simply drives himself to the NFL Scouting Combine on the evening of Wednesday, February 19. This is just under the halfway point of his First 100 Days as the Buccaneers' head coach.
There are critics of almost every aspect of the Combine. The weigh-ins, with their shirtless photos, make the players feel like cattle. The evening interviews are rife with creepy questions and well-coached prospects following scripts. The workouts over-emphasize 40-times and bench presses at the expense of actual football talent. The top players make a mockery of it by choosing not to run or throw.
Lovie Smith is an unabashed, unapologetic fan of the Combine; really, most NFL coaches and execs treat it like the most important week of the offseason, save for the draft itself. Personnel evaluators love being able to make one trip to see 300 prospects in action, rather than hundreds of jaunts all across the country. The medical data gleaned during examinations can be invaluable. The interviews are elucidating. Even the 40-times and vertical leaps are useful as confirmation of game-tape evidence.
On-field workouts don't begin at Lucas Oil Stadium until three days after Smith arrives in Indy. They will last from Saturday through the following Tuesday, with different position-groups running through the drills in turn. The tight ends, offensive linemen and kickers start it off on Saturday and the defensive backs close it out on Tuesday. Smith and Jason Licht have a team of scouts in place, with assistant coaches coming and going through Indy based on which positions are scheduled for each day. There's small army of evaluators in place, but Smith will watch every single workout over four days.
"I do love this next step, the Combine, having all the athletes there," he said. "For me, this will be my first introduction to a lot of them, and a chance to be able to compare them to what you kind of think about them from watching college games as a fan."
In his own words, Smith "couldn't care less" about some aspects of the Combine, such as the weigh-ins and the bench press. All of that information will be recorded and will be at the disposal of all NFL coaches and personnel pros from those days forward. If he needs to know how many times a certain offensive linemen bench-pressed 225 pounds, he can easily look it up back at One Buc Place.
His first appointment at the Combine is with a podium in the media center. Like many of the league's coaches and general managers, he has agreed to a turn in front of the press on Wednesday, and the new hires generally draw the largest crowds. He wears a long-sleeved black polo shirt and khakis and speaks as casually as he's dressed. It's a mostly general discussion, given that the crowd consists largely of media from other NFL cities, but there are some hints of what Smith has been thinking about in the days leading up to free agency. The most telling quote: "We have a lot of money in our offensive line and we should have better production from it." Three days later, Smith, standing at the back of the Lucas Oil Stadium luxury suite that serves as the Bucs' home base during Combine workouts, speaks glowingly of the class of offensive linemen readying for the draft. The depth he sees on that Saturday morning will come into play for the Buccaneers later in the spring on draft weekend, but secretly Smith and Licht are targeting free agency for that issue.
Smith knew he would recognize a certain portion of the crowd in front of the podium. He expected to field some questions from members of the Chicago media with whom he hadn't spoken to since he was fired by the Bears. As it turned out, however, the conversation stayed mostly on the Buccaneers, as reporters tried to get a feel for the direction Smith was taking his new team. He spoke mostly in non-specific terms, saying that "we have a plan in mind" and that the team would be striving to "go from 4-12 to being relevant again." Smith did, say, however, that he did not view 2014 as a rebuilding year, another hint as to what would be coming at the start of the next month.
This Q&A, of course, was out there for everyone to see. That same week, Smith and Licht and their assistants would be on the other side of a wholly different kind of interview. Much like the Buccaneers had a suite at the stadium with their own logo hanging on the wall below it, they also had a conference room on the ground floor of the Crowne Plaza hotel a few blocks away, with a large Buccaneer flag adorning the window. There were 32 meeting rooms decorated as such, and the four middle nights of the Combine were a seemingly-endless rotation of prospects bouncing from one team interview to the next. Each one was limited to 15 minutes, with air horn blasts strictly enforcing the changeovers.
None of this was new to Lovie Smith, but conducting the interviews with Jason Licht and the rest of the Bucs' personnel staff was. There are many different ways to set up these interviews, and not much time to get to the point with any given player. The Bucs couldn't just work up a list of young men they wanted to talk to before heading to Indy; they had to work out in great detail exactly how they were going to use their 15 minutes.
The Buccaneers would use their interview method 68 times between Friday and Monday. Smith would sit on every single meeting, and later admit that it was a grind. Missing even one interview wasn't an option though, because it was impossible to tell which one might produce the piece of evidence that would be the deciding factor in a high draft pick.
"Fifteen minutes isn’t a long period of time, but it was very valuable to sit down even for that brief period," said Smith. "To be able to put a face with the name, a face with a performance, and just get to know someone. Most of them are brutally honest, which is good. ‘This is who I am, this is what I’ve done.’ That’s what you want."
While Buccaneer scouts had been visiting campuses for months and getting additional interviews at all-star games, Smith was meeting many of the prospects for the first time. He has a dossier of sorts to refer to for each new player who walks through the door. The rapid rotation could be confusing, but Smith adopts an approach that has helped him when playing and coaching football: Lock in on the play at hand and forget what just happened.
"One guy leaves and you just have to say, 'Who’s up next?’ and start looking at his file," said Smith. "You just lock in on that guy and give them your total focus, because it's very important to see how they handle their first interviews with us. It’s amazing. Some of them are coached up really well, and for some, you’d be surprised. It’s a job interview, and you’d be surprised at what some of them say."
For some prospects, total honesty is the only approach that will work, because if there are any issues of concern in their past, they have to assume that the team officials interviewing them already know about it. Coaches and GMs are looking for men who will be upfront about their lives and certain about where they are going from there.
"A lot of them have issues, like all of us do, but you don’t want a guy to come in lying to you," said Smith. "The majority of them are bright-eyed and tell their stories. Some of them…if we all started having to tell what we’ve done in our lives, we’d be uncomfortable doing it. I know I would, you would, everybody. We’re asking 21-year-old men to tell us everything in their lives. A lot of times they won’t tell you everything, because they don’t know if you know everything. Getting to know them is all I’m trying to do. A lot of the time when you come into a meeting like that, you already have all the information. You want to see what they’re going to tell you."
Smith and Licht's preparations for these interviews has produced an approach that focuses more on personal issues, on sitting across a table from a prospect and looking him in the eye. It doesn't delegate much time to quizzing a player on his football knowledge or having him stand at a grease board and diagram a play. We don't know this first-hand, however, because there will be no "First 100 Days" access to these interviews. It would not be fair to the young men who deserve a level of privacy even if they must lay bare their lives for the people who may end up paying them enormous amounts of money. We will have to settle for anecdotal evidence that some players with worrisome backgrounds attempt to be misleading. As you'll see, there is a far more public – and seemingly endless – debate about the deceptive value of what takes place on the Lucas Oil Stadium field.
The Buccaneers' owners began the process of enhancing the team's logo and revamping the uniforms long before Lovie Smith was in the picture. In fact, considering that the process took more than a year and the chosen uniform designs weren't finalized until last November, Buccaneer owners knew they were going to have new uniforms long before they knew they would even be looking for a new coach.
The rest of the world would not know a new look was coming down the pike for the Buccaneers until late in February. Of course, when you become the head coach of an NFL football team you instantly step into the most inner circle of the organization. The Glazers told Smith right away about the upcoming change – showed him the glossies of the new togs, in fact – though he obviously had to sit on that information for a couple months.
It's hard to imagine that any uniform redesign could be a deal-breaker for a coach who's signing on with a new team. Still, it was and is a very big deal for the franchise, and it made sense to include Smith in the process. In fact, given the timing of the new coach hiring, and the very aggressive roster changes that were just around the corner, it all seemed to tie in together as one massive culture change.
"I was part of the change, coming in – that's how it was presented to me," said Smith. "They showed me the uniforms and then they showed me the building and said, ‘Here are some of the other changes we’re making.’ So much is being done around here for the players just to make it a better environment for the players."
The first part of the reveal came while Smith was at the Combine, on the evening of the same day he took the podium in front of the media. On an NFL Network special, the Buccaneers' redesigned helmet was revealed, with the enhanced red flag logos. Most strikingly, the new logos were much bigger than they had been in previous years, nearly taking up all of each side of the helmet. Smith finds the changes to his liking and has no problem seeing the logo get a more modern design.
"I like the logo, so the bigger the better," he said. "There’s a reason we have these logos – we’ve changed before. It didn’t need a major overhaul, but it needed to be tweaked. You tweak things throughout your life, and I think this is a good little subtle change."
In fact, Smith was in the building the last time the Buccaneers' logo changed. He and Tony Dungy's staff came to town in 1996, and before the next season the team left behind its original orange-and-white look for the harder-hitting red and pewter ensemble. In a way, that makes Smith something of a living connection between the three uniform eras; this fall, he and Special Teams Coordinator Kevin O'Dea – also a member of that first Dungy staff – will become the first and only coaches to wear all three logos on the sideline.
Lovie Smith has the air of a football throwback but he is actually quick to embrace change. He wouldn't have dreamed of changing the logo in Chicago and doesn't expect to see the Steelers do it any time soon, either. However, he thinks it's a perfectly fine idea for the NFL's younger franchises to try some creative ideas with their uniforms, such as the reflective numbers and the chrome facemasks of the Buccaneers' new arrangement.
These are unveiled on March 3 in a press release, and then the uniforms are modeled by players in front of the fans for the first time at a huge gathering at the stadium on March 28. Those are Days 58 and 83 in Lovie's First 100, and between them the roster received a massive overhaul in the most remarkable free agency run in franchise history. In fact, one of the three players who served as the primary uniform models on the night of the 28th wasn't on the roster when the new look was first unveiled. Smith remembered a mostly positive but partly mixed reaction to the new uniforms in 1997, and he expected a range of opinions to the latest unveiling. He also remembered the new look becoming completely embraced, in no small part because it coincided with the team's rise out of 15 years of struggles. Now, he was anticipating a similarly dramatic culture change, and a similar long-term result in regard to the uniforms.
"I think people like new things," said Smith. "I do. I think people actually like change, for the most part. We’re not changing our colors, like last time. We’re just coming up with a more modern version of a good combination. It’s especially good for the younger generation…I think they’re going to like it. It’s a modern day, and this is modern-day thinking on everything. This is the latest and the greatest."
Jadeveon Clowney jumps 10 feet and four inches from a stand-still. Khalil Mack explodes straight up, flipping a tab far above his head to notch a 40.5-inch vertical leap. Clowney runs 10 yards in 1.56 seconds; Mack records the exact same time. Clowney hurls his 6-foot-6, 266-pound frame through the 40-yard dash at a jaw-dropping 4.53 seconds, the 6-3, 251-pound Mack follows with a 4.65. Stopwatches click, pens scrape furiously across clipboards, scouts drool.
It's the third day of workouts at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, and the defensive front seven is having its day. Clowney and Mack, thought by most to be the top two defensive prospects in the class and potential first-overall selections for the Houston Texans, would seem to be playing a game of one-upmanship on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, even if they're not strictly taking turns. Classified as an end, Clowney works out first with the defensive linemen, followed by Mack and the linebackers in the afternoon.
That public debate about the deceptive aspects of the annual Combine? This is where it plays out, with prospects pulling out all of the stops to produce the numbers that will be written on their scouting reports and thus potentially impact their draft status and their immediate NFL earning power.
The question is, does a sparkling new time in the 40-yard-dash or one soaring vertical leap obfuscate or illuminate? A 40-time in itself should do neither; it's just a number. The debate, of course, is whether or not talent evaluators occasionally put too much stock in such numbers, using them to artificially inflate a player's worth on draft day. Beginning in the mid-90s, as the Combine started to get more media attention, there grew something of a backlash against this perceived importance of workout numbers, and the term "Workout Warrior" became mainstream. The term is still popular and almost always used derogatorily, often claiming Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula as its first poster boy.
The Eagles took Mamula seventh overall in 1995 – quite a bit higher than most expected – after an eye-popping workout. In truth, that's not completely fair, because it's a stretch to call Mamula a bust, though his career was cut short by injuries. He did rack up 31.5 sacks in five NFL seasons. The term would be better applied to Vernon Gholston, Matt Jones or JaMarcus Russell, he of the infamous down-on-one-knee bombs. No team wants to be known as the one that got suckered in by an over-the-top workout in Indy, only to end up with a first-round pick who looks decidedly less impressive in pads on game day. As such, you often hear team officials downplay the effects (if not the importance) of the Combine, claiming game footage as by far their most important scouting tool.
In reality, the shift from 1995 to 2014 in how Combine results are viewed by NFL insiders has probably not been all that drastic. Talent evaluators have always tried to piece together a big picture from as much input as possible, and they are not quick to rip up a long-developed scouting report after one scintillating sprint (or dismiss an ultra-productive college player for one bad workout). And, of course, there have been plenty of workout warriors at the Combine who have proved to be outstanding NFL players (and thus avoided actually getting that W.W. tag).
Lovie Smith doesn't particularly care how the Combine is viewed; once again, he's an unapologetic fan.
"There have been a few guys who have done very well at the Combine who didn’t turn out, so now this Combine doesn’t mean anything?" said Smith with a scowl. "No, that’s not the case. Not at all.
"People only talk about those few instances [like Mamula]. You get a lot from the Combine. Yes, it’s just a portion of the evaluation process, but let me be clear: It’s a big portion. The players there have to compete against the best of the best. And then their college workouts are important, when you go to his surroundings, what he’s comfortable about."
Lovie Smith watches Clowney and Mack intently. There's good reason for him to do so. While the draft "stock" of both players will rise throughout the spring to the point where both are expected to be top five picks, in late-February there is still a belief that either player could be available when the Bucs pick at #7. And, of course, there is always the possibility of a trade up by Smith's crew, which puts any of the top prospects in play.
This is the real value of the Combine, in Smith's eyes. He will watch game tape of Clowney and Mack individually, and he'll either attend their Pro Days (at Buffalo and South Carolina, respectively) or review that tape as well. But this is the one opportunity where his eyes will take in what the two players look like on the same day, on the same field, doing the same things.
"Here I get to see Clowney and Mack running through position drills," said Smith later that evening, after an abbreviated round of player interviews. "One and then other. That’s a good comparison. You see which one has better movement. You watch all the receivers, one after the other – which ones are running their routes better, to the naked eye? Which ones can catch the ball?
"We see it now, and when we go back to Tampa, all our coaches can watch all the video from the Combine. They can slow it down and see everything. ‘Is the guy looking the ball in? I thought he looked good during the change-of-direction drills, but now I get a chance to see that on tape, and verify it.'"
This is why Smith won't downplay the Combine, even if it's fashionable to do so. As much as he will rely on videotape to evaluate his own roster, the pending pool of free agents and dozens of potential high draft picks, Smith knows its limitations. The Combine fills in the gaps that video leaves the evaluator by putting all of the available talent up against each other, just a few yards away from the scouts' eyes.
"Here's the thing: Video can lie to you," said Smith. "Let's say I'm watching some college video and I see this wide receiver and he keeps running by the guy on the other side of the line. The whole game, he's just blowing right by the cornerback. And you say, ‘Wow, this guy’s fast.’ Well, as it turns out, that corner trying to cover him runs a 5.1 and the receiver runs a 4.9. It's all relative.
"Videotape is very important, but you can’t go just on that. It’s a comparison. That’s what you get from the Combine. You have the best of the best there. You see how they compete. They’re on a stage there. There is no other time when you’re going to have that many decision-makers there in person looking at you. I'll say it again: You can get a lot from the Combine."
Smith also believes that 40-yard-dash times are very important.
"I think we've got great coaches," said Smith. "You can have the best coach around and you can coach up a guy all you want, and we're going to do that. But if a guy runs a 4.8, coach him up all you like and you’re going to have a real good guy that’s coached up at 4.8. But that guy that’s 4.6, if he’s coached up the same way, he’s going to be better than the 4.8 guy. In the same way, if you have a guy with more all-around athletic ability – because it’s not all about speed – you're going to be able to coach him up into a better player."
Actually, there are four sets of numbers that Smith focuses on from the Combine: the 40-yard dash, the 10-yard dash, the vertical leap and the broad jump. He's narrowed it down to those four through many Combine visits and after-the-fact player comparisons.
"That's what I look at," said Smith. "Through the years, I've compared what guys have done here and how they've turned out and all that. These are the things that tell me the most about their raw ability. You can work on different things, even your speed, your start and all of that. The three-cone drill, all of that, you can work on that stuff. But, again, this is just raw ability.
"I want to know the 40-yard-dash speed. It’s a comparison with everybody else; I want to know. Also the 10-yard [run]. The vertical leap. In the vertical, you can’t move anything. It’s just boom…an explosion, straight up. The broad jump…just explosion straight out. I look at those, and they mean an awful lot. If you give me a guy with that type of ability and he’s coachable…those are the ones that are going to really hit. That’s what I’ve seen in my 30 years. I believe that fully."
Smith places a lot of value in the campus Pro Days that will follow the Combine, too. He'll go to as many of them as he can, though there are obviously many other commitments that will keep him at One Buccaneer Place. He'll eventually go to Blake Bortles' Pro Day, for instance, because the University of Central Florida is so close. He'll go to Johnny Manziel's Pro Day in College Station, too, which isn't close but it is Johnny Manziel. Players will put up more 40-yard-dash times in those workouts – including some who didn't work out in Indianapolis – but there are additional values to a Pro Day that are not found at the Combine.
"When you evaluate guys, you want to spend a lot of time watching video," said Smith. "That will tell you a lot. But then you need to know some more details that you can only get when you go to his college workout. Now he's in a familiar environment, and you can get some more detailed drills, positions you can put him in.
"You can also talk to people to get off-the-field information on the player, and what better place to get that than where they've been living? You can hang out with them, if you choose to arrive early or leave a day or two later. You can try to get them in a comfort zone – 'Hey, take me to your favorite place to eat. Do you have some people around here that are special to you?' I want to see them in their environment; that's when you get to know guys."
For Smith, who had been focusing most of his days since his hire on evaluating the Buccaneers' existing roster and the pool of potential free agents, the Combine marks the start of his preparations for the draft. The team's scouts have been hammering away at that process for the better part of a year, and Jason Licht has dived into the same work since arriving.
Now, they're all working together, most of them huddled in the Bucs' private suite in the corner of the stadium. It's a quiet atmosphere, like the lobby of a dentist's office, as the workouts take place. A row of personnel men sit at the counter above the suite's outer seats, their iPads docked, using a proprietary team program that allows them to quickly access information on any player. Smith and Licht prefer to sit in the seats up front, occasionally strolling to the back of the suite to put their heads together. With his glasses perched on his nose, Smith pays very close attention to every workout.
As always, the NFL Scouting Combine proves to be a bottomless source of the sorts of information that Smith finds extremely valuable. He leaves Indy feeling as if he has a better grasp on many of the top prospects, some of whom will certainly be in play at #7 in May.
And yet, as much as Smith clearly values the Combine, it's more of a beginning than an end in his mind. And even if he eschews the workout warrior school of Combine criticism, he doesn't think his team's draft board will undergo a drastic shuffling when he gets back to One Buc Place.
"It won't change much because the process has just started," he said. "You have to have an initial ranking, but we haven’t done enough yet. There’s so much still to be done. With a lot of the players we'll eventually be considering, only a few guys have seen them so far – maybe just the area scout. The coaches haven’t seen them, I haven't seen them.
"To me, it’s like a preseason poll. There’s a playoff at the end, so it doesn’t really matter anyway. The preseason poll is based on what you think going into it, but until you see a team start to play you don't know for sure. Once we really dig in and analyze these players and build on that preseason poll, that’s when the board will mean something."
In many ways, Davin Joseph is the model Buccaneer.
A first-round draft pick in 2006, Joseph delivered on that promise with two Pro Bowl trips and 99 starts at right guard for the Buccaneers. He did have some bad luck with injuries, missing significant time in 2008 and 2010 and sitting out of all of 2012 after a particularly bad preseason knee mishap. But he was a leader and a source of quiet strength in the Buccaneers' locker room, and a team captain for several seasons. The barrel-chested Joseph had two signatures that never changed in eight years: His long dreadlocks and his constant wide smile.
Joseph's response to the Bucs' hiring of Lovie Smith in January was typical: Upbeat, optimistic and respectful. "It's just tremendous for the organization, for the community and for the NFL," he said. "I'm looking forward to meeting him and getting to know him. I feel, with his experience, his leadership, I see a route that he could take this Tampa Bay team and he can put something on the field that could be very exciting for everybody."
After Joseph's 2010 season ended in late November with a foot fracture, he returned to have one of his best seasons in 2011, finishing it in Hawaii on his second Pro Bowl trip. He was primed for another big year in 2012, now paired with fellow Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks, until he went down early in a preseason contest with the New England Patriots. It took Joseph most of a year to recover from that one, and he gamely went into the 2013 season with very little preseason warmup action.
The Buccaneers' offensive line did not play well as a whole in 2013, and Joseph certainly didn't have one of his best seasons. He was the same hard-worker and the same team leader, and he never used his injury as an excuse, but he wasn't the same dominant player he had been in 2011.
This was evident on the game tape that Lovie Smith and Jason Licht reviewed in January and February. Also hard to miss was the contract that Joseph had signed just before the 2011 season, which still had four seasons remaining but had already paid out most of the guaranteed money. The Bucs could add about $6 million in cap space if they let Joseph go, and that was obvious enough that Joseph was a rumored potential cap casualty well before the start of free agency.
And, in fact, that was the conclusion that Smith and Licht came to, as well. No unit on the Buccaneers' depth chart would undergo more change in March than the offensive line – the very group Lovie Smith had made a point of mentioning during his podium time at the Combine – and the first move came on March 8. A short phone call from Smith informed Joseph that he had been released, three days prior to the start of free agency. Predictably, Joseph was gracious in his departure, tweeting that free agency would be a "new adventure" for him.
There was little to no fan backlash to the move, despite Joseph's popularity, but it still was not an easy decision for Smith.
"There are exciting new things about this job every day," said Smith, musing on the release of Joseph. "And there are also new challenges every day. This was one of those challenges. It's no fun having to go in a different direction from a player, especially a guy like Davin Joseph. There are usually tough decisions when you change coaching staffs."
Five days later, after free agency is in full swing, Smith will make a similar call to Donald Penn, the team's starting left tackle for the past decade. The Bucs had already signed his ostensible replacement in Anthony Collins, and the release of Penn was no surprise to anyone. Penn, who had started every game for the Buccaneers since Week Five of the 2007 season, is a proud player, and he earned that pride, fighting up from an undrafted free agent to a Pro Bowler. He voiced his displeasure with the Bucs' decision. Smith is not surprised at the manner in which any player exits, whether more like Joseph or more like Penn, and he certainly doesn't blame any of them for their emotions. He has to be clinical when evaluating and reshaping the roster, but he also feels the impact of such moves.
"Do I divorce myself from it emotionally? No. You can't," Smith explained. "Emotions are real, and you're just real people. You just try to be honest…I'll always be completely honest and whatever it is just lay it out there for them. You do that, and being in this profession you know that this is a part of it, and players realize that."
The last departure from the offensive line won't happen for a couple more weeks. After adding former Packer Evan Dietrich-Smith in the first week of free agency and immediately announcing him as the new starting center, Smith and Licht begin to shop Jeremy Zuttah, the incumbent at that position. As with Joseph and Penn, Zuttah carries a significant cap number, and the Bucs have clearly chosen to reallocate those resources. The Bucs find a partner in the Ravens on March 23, sending him to Baltimore for a fifth-round pick in the 2015 draft.
While that might seem like a delayed reward, that pick is actually used to help fill one of the open spots in the O-Line meeting room. Though it comes after the First 100 Days, Licht eventually trades that pick from Baltimore along with the Bucs' 2014 seventh-rounder to get an extra fifth-round pick in 2014 that is used on Purdue tackle Kevin Pamphile.
Smith's podium session in Indy wasn't the first time he publicly pointed out the difference between the investment the Bucs had in their offensive line in 2013 and the returns it produced. Changes were expected, though perhaps not to the extent that eventually occurred, as the Buccaneers could go into 2014 with as many as four new starters up front. To correct that imbalance, the team not only had to find some new performers but also say goodbye to a trio of men who had put in years of hard work at One Buccaneer Place. It wasn't easy, but it was necessary…at least that's the conclusion that Smith and Licht had come to during their critical roster evaluation phase.
"To get where we want to be, we've had to release some good football players," said Smith. "Every one of those moves was hard, but I also know those are guys who will have a chance to continue their NFL careers. In the end, part of my job description is to do what I think is the best for our organization, and that's what I've tried to do."
When a general manager or head coach heads to a new team in a new town, there are certain things he must do. He must find a new home and get a new driver's license. He must move into his new office at team headquarters and sit down with his communications director to go over policy. And, at some point, he must announce that his team plans to build through the draft.
If there was a bingo card for front office introductory press conferences, that would probably be in the center square. It's not exactly a cliché like "taking it one game at a time" or "giving 110% percent." There's more meat to it than that. It's more of an axiom, so obvious and evident in today's NFL that no one is going to argue with it. When it comes to creating a solid team core, the draft will always be the meat and free agency the complementary side dish. It's obvious, and yet it must be said.
Jason Licht said it during his introduction on January 23: "Our philosophy is going to be to build through the draft, that’s where we find our stars, that’s where we find the next generation…"
The ellipse suggests there's more to that quote, however, and indeed there is. Licht finishes the thought like this: "…but also in the short term and long term we’re going to supplement our roster through free agency, but we’re going to look for value."
In the short term, as it quickly becomes clear to Licht and Lovie Smith, the Buccaneers have to hit free agency a little harder than usual in 2014, especially after they decide to take a very aggressive approach to reshaping the roster. The Buccaneers enter March with a very small total of picks in the upcoming draft and a very long list of players from their 2013 roster who are about to become free agents.
"People talk about building…no," said Smith. "We're trying to put the most competitive football team on the field each year. Normally, that's through the draft. But we have five picks. So you say, 'We're going to build through the draft,' do you? Well, is that an option for us – keep everybody we have here and bring in five guys? That's not going to do it. You have to look at the whole picture."
When Smith and Licht took a step back from their very detailed, player-by-player review of the team and formed an opinion of the roster as a whole, they knew a decent amount of turnover was coming simply because they didn't plan to bring back most of their own pending free agents. Smith was asked just a week before the start of free agency, during one of the First 100 Days sessions in his office, if he was concerned that not a single player from that list of 19 Bucs with expiring contracts had yet been re-signed. It was clear that he wasn't the slightest bit concerned, ostensibly because one week was plenty of time but also, as it would turn out, because there really wasn't much of that type of work to get done.
"That process started a while back," he said. "Even though we’re getting close, we still have a lot of time. I’d say it’s like midseason. You’re in position, but you don’t know until that final week how things are going to shake out. We have a plan that I feel very comfortable with, and the plan is already being put into play. There are some of those guys that we would like back. Some."
The way Smith says "some" the second time sounds very much like "not many." And, indeed, only three of the 19 unrestricted free agents from the 2013 roster would be back for 2014: linebacker Jonathan Casillas, offensive lineman Jamon Meredith and cornerback Danny Gorrer. Casillas appears to be the top priority of that group, as he is the only one who re-signs before the start of free agency, when only the Bucs can negotiate with him. That deal is completed on March 7, one day before Davin Joseph's release. Meredith's return is announced on the 11th in conjunction with a trio of incoming signees, and Gorrer will get his deal done later that same week.
Down the road, when the team has been remade with the foundation that Smith and Licht want to put in place, re-signing the team's own good players will become a priority. In 2014, the core players that the two have identified are mostly under contract, for at least one more year, while the pending free agents were good players who didn't necessarily fit the plan. The Bucs won't have an offseason like this one often, but the exodus of free agents was just setting the stage for the dramatic moves to come.
"We were starting new," said Smith. "I didn't look at the roster and say, 'Hey, these guys have been here.' We were starting, almost, a new roster. That's true every year; you start over every year, if you look at it that way. But this year was a little different and, again, I was looking at and evaluating and comparing our own players but all the possible free agents. There were a lot of available free agents that I thought were good fits for us, that I thought fit what we were trying to do down here."
It's also becoming increasingly obvious that the plan involves some players who do have contracts, and contracts that will figure heavily into what the Bucs are able to do on the open market. That began on the weekend with the release of Joseph and there are persistent reports (eventually proven true) that Donald Penn and Darrelle Revis might be on their way out, as well. Mike Greenberg and Mark Dominik's shrewd salary structuring in previous years had kept those options on the table. NFL coaches and general managers always try to make incremental gains at every spot on the 53-man roster, but teams don't always have the resources to follow through on their desires. This offseason, this free agency period, the Buccaneers did have those resources, and they had some give, too. They could grow those resources rather quickly, if need be.
"Throughout the entire season, we'll always be looking to see if someone's available who would make our football team better, and this free agency period is no different," said Smith. "That's all we're doing right now in free agency. It just so happened that we had some flexibility and there were a lot of players out there that we felt would be a good fit."
Smith and Licht had identified their targeted players prior to March 8 and the weekend leading up to free agency. They were ready when the new 72-hour pre-free agency negotiating window, added to the process just the year before, began. Over the weekend and on Monday, they could contact the agents of pending free agents – though not the players themselves – and they could discuss the potential parameters of a deal without getting too specific, and without coming to any agreement. Agents could relay to their players which teams were showing interest, and then relay back to those teams if that interest was mutual.
Of course, an agent would presumably be inclined to report positive interest to any and all teams that come sniffing around. More suitors, more leverage. As such, the negotiating window is a nice opportunity to test the waters, but NFL general managers can't really assume anything until the market actually opens. In 2014, that was at 4:00 p.m. ET, March 11, 66th in Lovie Smith's First 100 Days.
The Bucs wasted no time in contacting Rick Smith, the agent for Michael Johnson and Jonathan Feinsod, the agent for Clinton McDonald. The two coveted defensive linemen – Johnson a former Bengal and the top pass-rusher in the market, McDonald an up-and-comer from Seattle's championship defense – just happen to be close friends. They were not aware that the Buccaneers were planning to contact them both.
Again, neither Jason Licht nor Lovie Smith can go past the players' agents to deliver a more personal recruiting pitch. Smith assumes, however, that the news of the Bucs' interest gets to Johnson and McDonald quickly, and that they will be able to use the 72-hour period to decide if Tampa is a possible destination or not.
"I'm sure Michael went right on the internet and looked us up…boom," said Smith with a smile. "I'm sure he Googled me…boom. Everybody has a history, we all do, and it's pretty easy to find these days. Guys look at that, and I think they like what they saw. I'm sure Michael looked up Joe Cullen, his defensive line coach, too. Tampa Bay, the city of Tampa. Guys start doing their research and they call each other. And then for him, that's when he and Clinton started talking to each other, because we were talking to both of their agents, too.
"Michael and Clinton knew each other; we didn't realize that until we started. As it turned out, they were best buddies. They talked to each other and they were both thinking about the Buccaneers. They hadn't told each other."
So there are two chances for a team to be aggressive right out of the gate in free agency. Calls are placed as soon as the negotiating window opens, setting the process in motion, but hands are still poised over telephones around the NFL as 4:00 p.m. on March 11 approaches. The Bucs did both, but what made their approach to free agency so stunning and unexpected was how many players they went after hard.
"We had a plan, we had identified the guys that we were going to approach right way, a full-court press right away," said Smith. "Come out strong – that was our plan. Don't wait to win the game right at the end of the game. We wanted to jump out to an early lead. We were aggressive with the guys right away. I thought we had a great product to sell. It still comes down to that. And the guys felt that way, too, obviously.”
You never mention the draft pick that you coveted who went right before you were on the clock, and you never bring up the names of free agent targets who slipped through your grasp. It is possible that, despite seemingly half of the NFL heading to Tampa over the course of one heady week, there were some others who weren't swayed by the Bucs' pitch or their monetary offers. Given the final results, however, and what Smith can share about the process, it's not likely the Bucs swung and missed very often during free agency.
"We got most of the guys we wanted," said the coach. "We thought it would happen that way. When guys had a chance to choose they would like what we're doing here, the staff we put together, everything we had to offer. And I thought we would. I really did. I'm a glass-half-full guy. I expected us to have success. There's a lot to offer here."
The influx started within an hour of the opening bell on the 11th. The Bucs announced the signings of Johnson, McDonald and tight end Brandon Myers, plus the re-signing of Meredith, shortly before 5:00 p.m. A media advisory scheduling a press conference to introduce the newest Buccaneers the following day is pushed out via email at 5:02. Aggressive, indeed.
The Bucs agreed to terms with "only" those three newcomers in the first blush of free agency, but they contacted many more, some of whom would take a more methodical approach to the process. Smith was an active part of the process, but he obviously couldn't call 10 different people at once, and the Bucs wanted their targets to hear from them at 4:01.
"I think I called Michael right away," said Smith, just a few days later. "It's hard to recall the exact order…that already seems like it was 20 years ago! I know I called and talked to all of them right away. I'm trying to think.
"What I do remember clearly, and what was really impressive, was the organization that Jason and his crew had put into this before Tuesday. It was a fantastic job of preparing for what would be a crazy process. A lot of people were involved on our end, and we are fortunate to have a lot of guys that have been in the college game. This was very much like college recruiting, trying to sell your team and your people, and I feel like we do that very well. Personally, I used to love recruiting in college, especially at the end. And that's what this was like, but drastically condensed. There's no recruiting…and then, bam, all of a sudden it's Signing Day. All your cards were in right away."
Landing Johnson, McDonald and Myers at the opening bell was a huge win for the Buccaneers, and that work alone probably would have represented a satisfactory investment in free agency in the eyes of many. Reporters, even those working internally at One Buccaneer Place, wrote glowing reviews of the moves and went home that evening expecting to focus next on Wednesday's introductory press conference.
But Licht and Smith were far from done. The Johnson signing – the main jewel of the Bucs' initial free agency work – didn't actually come as a big surprise. Even as quickly as the team got the deal done after 4:00 p.m., that was still well after the first reports that Johnson was the primary player in the team's sights. Alterraun Verner, however? No one saw that coming.
Certainly not the handful of local reporters (including the internal one) who got a call from Jason Licht's office at about 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday night. In Licht's office were Lovie Smith, Mike Greenberg and Director of Communications Nelson Luis. Somehow, without any rumors or leaks, the Bucs had snagged another one of the most coveted players on the market, the former Titan cornerback and 2013 Pro Bowler.
Tell me when this day started that you thought the Bucs were going to land Michael Johnson AND Alterraun Verner. A defense on the rise!— Scott Smith (@ScottSBucs) March 12, 2014
Smith thinks the Bucs' first wave of signings has contributed to this coup, and to the additions that followed during the remainder of the week.
"Then, with the internet too, it got out that, 'Hey these guys are looking at Tampa. Maybe I ought to look at Tampa a little bit,'" he explained. "So there was a big wave at first. Now, after the first wave, you're talking to Alterraun Verner. He knows that Michael Johnson's here. He knows we're talking to Josh McCown. As I talked to Alterraun, he had been watching what we were doing as a whole and thinking, 'They've got something going down there in Tampa Bay.' He had always kind of liked Tampa a little bit, even before all this happened. I'm sure he was saying, 'Hey, they're getting that defensive line right, and their history shows that they play great defense. Cornerbacks in this system have really done well. Anyway, it worked out great."
The Buccaneers' Wednesday press conference grows by one player and becomes quite the celebration. However, even as Licht is smiling his way through the late-morning show for the cameras, he's thinking about getting back to his office and maintaining the team's free agency momentum. The next big thing on the checklist: former Bears quarterback Josh McCown.
The Buccaneers put as strong of a press on McCown as they had on Johnson. They wanted to be the first team to show up on his phone during the negotiating window. They wanted to be his first destination on Tuesday. They succeeded in the latter, but they did not have McCown in the fold as Tuesday came to an end. The 34-year-old passer was getting his first real crack at a lucrative run in free agency, and he intended to be thorough in his approach.
"Josh McCown, that was really big for us," said Smith. "Really big. Getting our quarterback. Josh had other options, you know. Getting him to come here first was important. The plan was to not let him leave, to convince him to become our quarterback before he left. He left the building to talk, sure, but we didn't want him to leave Tampa. And he didn't."
McCown's signing was announced at about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, just under 24 hours after the market opened. In those 24 hours, the Buccaneers had landed the coveted players who wanted to move fast, and they had roped in another key addition who had chosen to fly under the radar. With McCown, they had won through persistence as much as aggressiveness. Smith and Licht had played every style of recruiting, and made all of them work. And after filling a gigantic need with a premier pass-rusher and shoring up a soon-to-be changing secondary, they had landed the one player they most needed to fix the league's least productive offense.
"I felt good about it because I felt it was a good fit, for Josh and for us," said Smith. "Josh is a veteran, he's been around. He knew that this was a good situation for him. He knew a lot. When you're in free agency, a lot of times there are unknowns. There were a lot of 'knowns' for him. Me, for instance. How are we going to run practice? All of that. Guys on the staff. He had a great meeting with Jeff [Tedford] and Marcus [Arroyo], and with all of us. I felt that it was a good fit for him and what he wanted to do."
The Buccaneers had sized up a lot of potential help for the roster before free agency began. And they would go right on fitting them for red and pewter uniforms after the first 24 hours were through.
Of the 79 players that Lovie Smith inherits when he walks through the doors of One Buccaneer Place on January 5, the one with the most decorated NFL career is cornerback Darrelle Revis.
A legitimate NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate during several of his six seasons with the New York Jets, the 28-year-old Revis was at one point considered the best pure cover corner in the NFL by a wide margin, and he would still figure prominently in that conversation. After blowing out his knee in 2012 and coming to the Buccaneers in a blockbuster trade in the spring of 2013, Revis has successfully returned from that injury and put together another Pro Bowl season.
It's curious, then, that by February there are persistent rumors that the Buccaneers are looking for the best route off of Revis Island.
There is always an issue or two that defines the First 100 Days of a U.S. President. Barack Obama's spring of 2009 revolved around an economic stimulus package and saw a major commitment to health care reform. And there are often unscripted events during those 100 Days that take on a serious amount of significance. George W. Bush had an early test of his diplomacy in 2001 after a collision between an American reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet near China.
In style (if not quite in substance), the internal discussion about what to do with Darrelle Revis is somewhere in between those two issues. The public debate and incessant rumors are not promoted nor particularly enjoyed by the Smith-Licht administration, but privately it is an issue that will help shape policy for the rest of the offseason.
In the end, the rumor mill gets it right, if not for all the right reasons. The theory is that Revis isn't a good fit for Smith's preferred Cover Two defense, and as such it's unpalatable to pay him $16 million a year. To Smith, the first half of that is laughable, and essentially insulting to both Revis and the Buccaneers. On an early evening in March, not long after he has returned from the Scouting Combine, Smith leans back in his chair and scoffs at the notion.
"To make the statement that we don’t play with good corners who are tough and have ball skills…any system, you want a corner like that. To think that in our system we can get away with corners who can’t play, that’s silly. What you can’t do is start responding to everything that’s being said about you."
Smith is responding to this one, obviously, but he's doing so in his office, for a feature that won't see the light of day for months after the whole situation is resolved. Clearly, he would like to make at least one person see the whole picture. He's actually becoming as closed to agitated as the interviewer has seen to this point. Perhaps not agitated…animated may be the better word. He knows that the situation is quite a bit more nuanced than it is being portrayed. But he has decided, long before now, that in some cases where perception and reality don’t match, it's not worth any long-winded efforts to close the gap. There is nothing to be gained by it, and in fact there is potential value in others misunderstanding exactly what the Bucs intend to do on defense.
Still, Smith can't help shaking his head at the notion that he would have failed to find a way to best utilize Darrelle Revis's talents, or that the Bucs' secondary will sit back all day and play two deep safeties. He estimates that, in an average game, the Buccaneers will be in a Cover Two base on defense about 30% of the time.
"John Lynch almost went into the Hall of Fame, and still might," said Smith. "Do you think John’s best position was back as a half-field guy? He’s an into-the-box guy. There's no way we would be sitting here right now talking about John Lynch going into the Hall of Fame, if the Buccaneers hadn't found ways to have him up around the line of scrimmage.
"Now take Darrelle Revis. Now, I can see why people say that Darrelle is a guy that likes to play a certain type of football. There are certain guys that like to do certain things, so I can see why people say that about Darrelle. Where he came from, he played man just about every snap. But that doesn’t mean he can’t do other things. And he didn’t just play only man there. The difference between perception and reality is like the difference from north to south a lot of the time."
As this discussion grows, Smith is shown a handful of the latest media reports on Revis's status. Does he have a reaction?
"Zero reaction," he says with an air of finality. "You can’t start reacting to everything that’s happening on the outside. That doesn’t help what’s going on on the inside. Darrelle’s on our team, like he’s been all along. You know what you are, and you just keep working. People write stories because that’s their job, and that’s fine. It's good for our league. Darrelle’s on our team, like Gerald McCoy’s on our team. You can speculate…that’s a good part of the offseason, people speculate about everything. We don’t pay it a second thought."
At this point, Smith and Licht have already reviewed the roster, crunched the numbers and discussed several scenarios. They've looked at how the team could be shaped with Revis on the roster, and how it could be shaped without Revis on the roster. Yes, they have contemplated the why and the how of moving on from Revis and using his salary to spike several different spots on the roster. But the decision isn't as certain as some believe in late February and early March. As the March 11 start to free agency approached, Smith and Licht were still mulling the possibilities.
"We had options, even with a Darrelle Revis," Smith said simply.
In the weekend before March 11, rumors that the Buccaneers are attempting to trade Revis heat up. It would be naïve to ignore that, in some cases such as this, where there is enough smoke there is probably some fire. And it would also be naïve to believe the Bucs had a great chance of actually swinging a trade for a player who would bring with him a $16 million cap hit, especially in the days just before free agency when GMs are hoarding that all-important cap space.
As such, the deadline on the Revis decision becomes clear. He is due a significant roster bonus on the afternoon of March 12. By then, the Buccaneers will be thick into their free agency blitz, and that will make Revis' $16 million salary very topical. And so it is that on March 12, on Day 67, almost exactly two-thirds into Smith's First 100 Days, the single most significant action of that time period will take place. The Buccaneers release Darrelle Revis.
"In the end, that simply wasn't a hit we were going to take – we could swap out," said Smith of Revis' salary. "Everybody looked at what they thought was our cap space, but we really had a lot more. We had almost unlimited cap space because of the contracts we could switch out.
"It was not an easy decision because Darrelle's a great player. But he's not the only great player in the league. We just felt like we needed, instead of having one great player we thought we could get three. Instead of having one real good player, we felt like we could get three real good players."
In fact, the Buccaneers had already done that the day before, spending the windfall they knew would be coming the next day on Michael Johnson, Clinton McDonald and Brandon Myers. In fact, the combined 2014 cap hit for those three together ends up being less than Revis's salary. Obviously, the Bucs had to have existing cap room for those moves on Tuesday before releasing Revis on Wednesday, but they knew they could use that room and then still end up with plenty of space to do the rest of their planned work in free agency.
Smith and Revis share Buccaneer ties for just over two months, and they never actually meet at One Buccaneer Place. As he did with Davin Joseph, Smith himself makes the call to pass on the team's decision, but he knows he won't be on the phone long.
"Short conversation with Darrelle, like I had a short conversation with everyone," he said. "They didn't want to talk long and I didn't want to talk long. 'We're going in a different direction and thank you for all you did for us.' It's the same conversation that you have to have. It's not going to be long and drawn-out. They're not going to want to talk to me. We're a part of their past. It's just the cordial and respectful thing to do.
"And for a guy like Darrelle, he knew he'd be fine. All those guys knew they were going to be able to sign somewhere else. New year, things change."
Revis will end up in New England and Alterraun Verner will end up in the Bucs' left cornerback spot, at a price that works for both team and player. And because the release of Revis will occur after the Bucs have made their companion moves in free agency, it will actually draw grudging respect – or at the least an acknowledgment that the overall plan has merit – from a good portion of the media.
More importantly, whether it's viewed by one analyst as a good decision or by another as unforgiveable, it is the kind of dramatic policy move that defines a leader's First 100 Days.
Lovie Smith's admittedly unfocused approach to packing before he came to Tampa in January resulted in a big pile of sweaters in his hotel room. Fortunately – and probably with MaryAnne's help – he had also managed to put a few suits in his closet, too.
He would need them in March. One day after introducing Michael Johnson, Clinton McDonald, Brandon Myers and Alterraun Verner at a star-studded press conference at One Buccaneer Place, the team was back in the media studio again, with the cameras rolling. This time, it was Josh McCown and Anthony Collins holding up hastily-produced jerseys and posing for pictures. McCown had seemed like the icing on the cake when he had signed on Day Two of free agency – shortly after that first press conference – but it turns out the Bucs weren't yet done with the main course.
In a scenario that would become almost unbelievably repetitive during the first week of free agency, while the Buccaneers were still getting out the news about one new addition Jason Licht would be working to wrap up the next day's signing. After McCown chose the Buccaneers on Wednesday, former Bengals tackle Anthony Collins followed suit on Thursday, and was even in town to ink his deal. That allowed the Bucs to introduce their quarterback and his new blindside protector at the same time.
On Friday, it was former Packer Evan Dietrich-Smith, the team's new starting center. Licht and his crew apparently took a deep breath on Saturday, collected their thoughts…and then dived right back into the pool. Sunday brought linebacker Dane Fletcher and guard Oniel Cousins. Fletcher comes in expecting to compete for a starting spot, perhaps in the middle or on the strong side, and Cousins joins a group of candidates for possibly two starting guard spots.
As flexible as the Buccaneers found themselves before free agency, there is of course eventually going to be a limit. Salary cap space is created, and then used, created and then used. That's not a process that can or should go on indefinitely.
Still, the Bucs aren't done, even as the league-wide activity on the market begins to wane in Week Two, as it always does. Four days after landing Fletcher and Cousins, on what is exactly the three-quarter pole of Lovie Smith's First 100 Days, former Raiders cornerback Mike Jenkins throws his lot in with all the free agents heading to West Tampa. The former University of South Florida cornerback has played for the Cowboys and Raiders, made a Pro Bowl and started 63 games, and he immediately steps in as a likely "starter" in one of the team's three cornerback spots (including the nickel).
As the locker room gets more and more crowded with new faces, one wonders if the "Dream Team" whispers will commence. That was the unfortunate sobriquet the Philadelphia Eagles hung on themselves after a particularly large haul of notable free agents in 2011 (QB Vince Young was the bad-quote culprit). It didn't work out at all in Philly, nor did it in Washington in 2000, when Deion Sanders and others came to town. High-profile flameouts of this variety have made analysts as hyper-sensitive to free agency "dream teams" as they are to workout warriors at the Combine, and perhaps for better reason.
One gets the impression, however, that Lovie Smith cares as much about the "dream team" label as he does about workout warriors.
"We weren't trying to 'win' free agency," said Smith. "We weren't trying to sign the most players in the league or get the biggest names. We had five draft picks – five – so we had to look around. We weren't going to be able to bring in an awful lot in the draft, numbers-wise. Right after our evaluation process, we determined exactly what we needed. And then we looked at the available free agents and thought there were going to be a lot of opportunities to help ourselves. And that's what happened."
Every new addition to the roster is asked why he chose Tampa Bay as his free agency destination, and Lovie Smith himself is a popular answer. Players network, of course, and Smith obviously has a very good reputation around the league. That said, there are other highly-respected coaches in the NFL, and other teams with a lot to offer. The key to the Buccaneers' string of recruiting success in March, according to Smith, was the very first step: Simply getting the players to come to town.
"For us, it really was about getting them here," he said. "It's a little different talking on the phone than having them here. It was best to have them here to lay it all out. 'It's like this: This is what we have to offer. This is the depth chart and this is where you'll be. This is how we're going to do it. We start here. We travel this way. We discipline like this. If you come here, this is what we'll be asking you to do.'
"Again, I think we have a history of being honest with the guys. We wanted everybody to come here, but we weren't going to compromise what we believe in to get anybody to come. This is what we have to offer if you feel like you want to be a part of it."
Being unwilling to compromise also meant determining that each potential addition matched a certain profile off the field, as well.
"We were in a position where we could mold the roster exactly the way we wanted," said Smith. "And a part of molding the roster for us is, there is a certain type of guy we want. We did a lot of research on them to get our type of player, a guy we want representing our Buccaneer organization. So that was important, and we really did bring in some good guys.
"You'll see Michael Johnson in the community. We talk about high character – you'll see that from a Michael Johnson. When people get a chance to meet Alterraun Verner – we'll be getting letters about them, how great of a job they've done outside the building. Josh McCown…I did a function at Raymond James Stadium with Josh the other day, with fathers and sons, All-Pro Dad. He was great. When people get a chance to be around some of our players they're going to really like them, on the field and off."
And most of all, Smith hoped to find players that wanted the Buccaneers as much as the Buccaneers wanted them. He earlier described the team's approach to free agency as a "full-court press," but the analogy breaks down a little bit because the Buccaneers weren't looking to smother their targeted players and force them into mistakes. Rather, Smith had a product in which he believes, and he fashioned a sales pitch that was designed to allow free agents to come to the same conclusion.
"It wasn't like we locked the door and hid the key," said Smith, describing the typical free agent visit. "We wanted to show everybody what we had here, and we wanted them to feel like they wanted to be a part of it before they left town. That's not a decision you just make like that. There's thinking involved."
Six days after landing Jenkins, the Buccaneers convince former Bay area prep star Louis Murphy, a Giants receiver, to come home. Nine days later, former Bears safety Major Wright, another Sunshine State native and a former teammate of Murphy's at the University of Florida, follows suit. Wright, who has started for the past three seasons in Chicago, two of them under Smith, joins a team that appears to have its two starting safeties in place. That surely factors into his thinking, and he leaves One Buccaneer Place after his visit without signing. The Bucs believe they'll get another call from Wright but don't think they have to add any more pressure.
"We had another player in here yesterday and we let him go until tomorrow to think about it," said Smith. "We feel like we're a good product and we don't mind competing with somebody else. We think if you start comparing you'll like what we have here."
NFL coaches love having a reason for a press conference. A big free agency signing. A first-round draft pick. A win on Sunday. A Super Bowl championship. If the cameras are gathering, something big has happened. Hopefully, it's something good.
There have been a lot of press conferences in Lovie Smith's First 100 Days. Big developments. He thinks they've been good developments, though he and his new-look team will have to prove that's the case next fall, and (hopefully) for many seasons to come. Smith has been asked to go on record about his own homecoming; his partnership with Jason Licht; releasing long-time Buccaneers; signing big-name free agents; working the Scouting Combine; building a coaching staff; and more.
A lot of talk, and some of it pretty enlightening. If nothing else, it's a chance for the local media to feel Smith out, to find out how he likes to communicate and what brings out his liveliest quotes. At the podium, he's a little funnier than one might expect, playing off his stoic demeanor to venture into deadpan humor from time to time. He prefers a casual circle of reporters on the practice field to a formal turn at the podium, but isn't uncomfortable in either setting. Despite moving all over the country during his coaching career, he still has a Texas accent, with all its hard Rs.
So Smith is alright with this part of the job and he's perfectly comfortable at the podium, but like all football coaches he prefers to be on the field. He's had April 7 circled on his calendar for quite some time. That's the 93rd day on the job, since arriving at One Buccaneer Place. For the most part, everything he has done has been about transforming a roster, very much in the sense of the piece of paper you might be handed along with your program at a baseball game. He has replaced one left tackle with another, for instance, and it looks like a good move on paper, but the real Anthony Collins has yet to step on the practice field.
It's no wonder that Smith is looking forward to the first Monday in April. It's like he's fished out all the edge pieces from a jigsaw puzzle's box but hasn't had a chance to snap them together yet. He knows what the big picture is supposed to look like, but he still has to put everybody in the right place. April 7 is time for action. Finally.
The rules governing what NFL teams may do on the field during the offseason have been significantly more restrictive since the new collective bargaining agreement was put in place in 2011. Most teams can't convene their players until April 21, but the Buccaneers and about a half-dozen other squads get a two-week head start due to having new coaching staffs. That's what makes April 7 such an important day in Lovie Smith's first year at the helm.
"I've been looking forward to this day for a long time," said Smith later that evening. "We wanted our guys to enjoy their down time during these last couple months. That's their time and they deserve it. I met some of the players during the last couple months, but it was just whenever they decided to stop by. There was enough to keep us busy, anyway.
"Once this day got here, though, we started our voluntary workouts. They are voluntary, without a doubt. Ideally, though, we'd like all the guys to be here in town, going through our workout program. We're going to do things a little differently."
Smith and his staff have planned the next three months out meticulously. There are three "Phases" to the CBA-allowed offseason program, and each one allows a different amount of on-field interaction. In addition to daily workouts in the weight room, the Buccaneers will get an extra (voluntary) mini-camp in April due to their coaching changeover, the prescribed 10 organized team activity days (OTAS) and a mandatory three-day camp in June to cap it all off. Long before Smith stands in front of his recombinant squad on April 7, he and his coaches have literally planned every minute of every one of those practice days.
Actually, Smith and his coaches have already plotted every minute of training camp, too, and that doesn't start until late July.
"We want to make good use of every second," said Smith. "The league sets up the rules. For most of the offseason, you only have four hours per day to do what you need to do with the players. Then during the OTA period you have six hours. And you have to have a plan for every one of those hours."
"You just go down the calendar, day by day. Okay, now it's June third; what are we going to do on that day? That's the NFL – you plan ahead. I have our training camp schedule done. I have our in-season game week done. We have our schedule for what we're going to do in the bye week, the Thanksgiving week, the Christmas week. Then you get the game schedule and you plug all those in. As a coach, you're always planning ahead."
Smith is sitting at a circular table in his office that he can use to talk with guests. In clear sight, on the front edge of his desk, is a binder that contains practice schedules for the months ahead. At its mention, he gets up and brings it over to the table. It's not a work in progress; it is done.
"We always do it this way, planning everything for the whole offseason," said Smith, joking that the team's logo change required an 11th-hour update on all the planning documents. "I just want everyone to know what’s going on at all times. Since the offseason program is mostly voluntary you’ve got to work with the guys a little bit. I want them to see that the schedule is totally set, so they know when they’ll have time to do what they want to do, so they can make their plans.
"The schedule is laid out through June, so they can see that there is plenty of time to get in the work we need to do. For the most part, they know that in any week they’re done at noon on Thursday and don’t need to be back until eight a.m. on Monday. You have time to do anything when you know that. You want to go to the Bahamas? There are three-day cruises right out of Tampa. If you want to get away, whatever you want to do, you have time to do that and still get your work done."
While evaluating the roster, devising a plan for free agency and continuing their indispensable draft research, Smith and his crew have also taken care of the nuts and bolts, making sure they're prepared to turn their apparent gains on paper into actual improvements on the field.
And so it is on Day 93 that, for the first time, Smith walks out onto the stage at the bottom of the auditorium at One Buc Place, where most full-team meetings will be held. Every single player on the roster is in attendance. Smith won't speak long; in fact, he's saving his most important offseason message for the following Monday. But he's understandably pleased by the lack of empty seats.
"The first step to getting better is showing up, and our players have showed up," he said. "That's a good start, but we're behind. I told them that we are a 4-12 team. I mentioning the 4-12 record because that's what we are, and we need to catch up with the rest of our division and the rest of the league."
The problem with that is that two extra weeks of offseason work can't make up the difference between a 12-4 team and a 4-12 team. Moreover, there are intensely driven coaches and players throughout the league, and the Bucs can't assume they'll gain an advantage simply by working hard. What Smith is trying to do is establish a baseline expectation about how his team will prepare.
"Our ultimate goal is of course to win the Super Bowl, but it's about the day-to-day grind that you have to have," he said. "We talked to our team about character. Our players, they have to know that it's about self-motivation. It's what you do and what you say, what you are, when no one is around."
The idea of a president's First 100 Days as being a particularly formative period began with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who coined the term in 1933 (though actually referring to Congress). Roosevelt was trying to guide the nation out of the Great Depression, and he attacked the issue head-on and without hesitation. Roosevelt knew the nation wanted to see a leader taking immediate action.
Kenneth T. Walsh of U.S. News & World Report, in reviewing FDR's First 100 Days, describes the concept as such: "It's not a perfect measure, but it's a useful one – the 100-day standard for gauging presidential effectiveness. The underlying truth is that presidents tend to be most effective when they first take office, when their leadership style seems fresh and new, when the aura of victory is still powerful, and when their impact on Congress is usually at its height."
On April 7, Smith stood in front of his new team for the first time – a leader and his loyal charges – and gave a very simple speech about hard work and self-motivation. He then stepped back and watched the results. The Buccaneers couldn't do too much during that first week of the offseason program, as it was part of Phase I as allowed by the CBA. There certainly wasn't anything resembling a real in-season practice, but there were plenty of opportunities for eager players to prove themselves in the weight room or the classroom.
"I told the guys that I'm 55 years old," said Smith, whipping out one of his favorite tropes. "Do you know what happens when you're 55? Your hearing gets a little worse every year. Guys that tell me what they're going to do, I can't hear that. But my sight, it seems like every year it gets a little bit better. So it's about them showing us – not just me but our staff – what they can do and letting us go from there."
Over the course of the next week, Smith saw exactly what he expected. His players did indeed work hard, and yet it wasn't enough. On the 100th day of his tenure as the Buccaneers' 10th head coach, Lovie Smith would stand in front of the same group of young men and tell them exactly that. It wasn't a lecture; it wasn't, in fact, the least bit harsh in delivery. Smith isn't prone to raised voices or dramatic aphorisms. This message was presented as matter-of-factly as possible: Good job, men. Not good enough.
There's a reason that Lovie Smith is able to say these words to his first Tampa Bay Buccaneers team without slipping into locker-room-halftime hysterics. He knows the plan. He knows where the team was on Day One, and where it is now on Day 100, and it's good. It's right. There is absolutely no guarantee that Lovie Smith's Buccaneers will cast off the chaos of recent seasons and return to contender status, just like there's no guarantee that a president's first four-year term will make any lasting difference on the nation. But there has been a very clear definition of policy in Lovie Smith's First 100 Days, and he's confident that there is positive change ahead.
"I think we're right on track," said Smith. "We know where we're headed now. We changed our roster. It has a different look. The first step was to attack, relentlessly, free agency, and we were able to do that. Most of the guys that we wanted we were able to convince to come here and join our ballclub.
"There is a lot of change, but when you're 4-12 change needs to happen. Some people might be concerned about the number of guys coming in, but I just kind of look at each guy individually. It's not like we're bringing guys in because we're just trying to fill a roster spot. These were guys that we had evaluated, that we wanted. That part, that's the exciting part, bringing a group of guys together from a lot of different places and seeing them grow together as a team. After one week, I've already seen that."
Over 100 days, Lovie Smith has made One Buccaneer Place his home, almost literally. He and MaryAnne have purchased a house in Tampa, but for Lovie the winter and spring months are about remaking the Buccaneers. He spends his very brief nights at a nearby hotel, with very early morning and very late night commutes from team headquarters. He starts to get a feel for the building, the shortcuts, the back staircases, the quickest routes from his office to the dining room or the weight room. He works up a personal workout regime.
There's a back door into the team auditorium, although almost everyone goes in through the big double doors at the top of the room. That's another thing Smith has learned about the building. He can walk in through the back, take a seat near the stage by the video station and watch his players file into the room. That's what he did on Day 93, and on Day 100, and even if he wanted more out of his players than he got on days 94-99, he still appreciated the view from that seat down by the stage. It's a view that expands beyond those doors at the top of the room.
"What I've seen is that when you come in new, you want people to embrace the direction that you're heading with the organization," said Smith. "People have embraced us, from the receptionist to the eating area to maintenance to younger fans, older fans, season ticket holders, people who are going to become season ticket holders. Just everyone throughout. The media is giving us a chance to prove what we can do, and that's all you ask. So, yes, I like the direction we're going, and after 100 days I'm not going to say that we're behind in any way. We're right on pace for where we should be right now.
“I've loved these 100 days. Not enjoyed it – I've thoroughly loved every moment of it, every minute, every second of it.”
At the end of his first tour of One Buccaneer Place, Lovie Smith finds himself in his office in the southeast corner of the second floor of the building, his hands clasped behind his back, staring out the window that runs the length of the back wall. He is not alone – a photographer and a videographer are capturing the moment, so there's plenty of movement in the office as staffers try to stay out of the shot. It's a bit of a dance.
Smith is perfectly still, however. A few minutes earlier, he had remarked on how perfect the view was, as he can see all three of the One Buc practice fields as well as Raymond James Stadium just off to the right. Now he's quiet, just soaking in the view. No one breaks up his reverie.
It's an unseasonably warm day in Tampa, though none of the natives are surprised by this. Smith, wearing a long-sleeved grey polo with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows, looks out over an almost cloudless sky. One can imagine he's contemplating the future, as it his goal to never have to find another job in the NFL, or another town in which to settle down with his wife, MaryAnne. Since he happens to be the typically-driven NFL coach, one can also imagine that he's already spinning the Buccaneers' 2014 depth chart in his head.
Even Smith, who along with his soon-to-be-partner Jason Licht will shape the future of the NFL's 27th franchise, doesn't yet know how dramatic the next 100 days will be. Right now, he's thinking about the turn his life is taking. He's thinking about his three sons and eight grandchildren. He's thinking about MaryAnne, and how she will guide the family through this latest transition. He's thinking, of course, about football.
"Having a great wife like I have in MaryAnne, allows me to just concentrate on my job: to just live and just eat football always."
Ninety-nine days later, Smith will say this about his first three months on the job: "They have gone quickly, but at the same time it's still vivid. How often do you get a chance to start a new life?"
How often do you get a chance to start a new team? When Lovie Smith walked through the doors of One Buccaneer Place on January 5, he carried with him a mandate, a majority rule, a responsibility. He was expected to enact change, and while that change might take some time to develop, it needed an immediate and defined path to follow. That's what Lovie Smith accomplished on his First 100 Days as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
What is Lovie Smith thinking about on January 5, Day One, as he stands in his office at One Buccaneer Place for the first time and gazes out over the practice fields? His coaching staff? Free agency? The draft? Offseason schedules?
Maybe. Or maybe he's thinking about home. Eventually he turns from the window and he and MaryAnne and the rest of the group get ready to leave. There are things to do, bags to unpack. There's a trip to Publix on the agenda. Wardrobes will be set for the next day's press conference. Little Jackson probably needs a nap.
And, schedule permitting, Lovie has some game tape to watch in his new office.
Story by Scott Smith
Layout by Eric Rook
Photos by Mike Carlson, Matt May, Jason Turner and AP
Videos by Ed Bottger, Stephen Lynch and NFL Network
Data Visualization by Ravi Parikh
Graphic Design by David Sharpensteen
Research by Andrew Norton
Social Media Curation by Jeff Neal
Content Management by Ted Jarmuz
Additional contributions provided by Josh Lane and Julie Fanning