- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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Of all the revelations coming out of free agency so far, this one is the most surprising: the very real possibility that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will soon be legitimate contenders. They already had improved themselves by replacing former head coach Greg Schiano with a proven winner in Lovie Smith earlier this winter. They also wisely dumped overpriced cornerback Darrelle Revis instead of committing more cash to a player who didn't fit their future plans. Then came the start of free agency, where swift and savvy decisions have revealed a strong vision for a franchise that has been a mess in recent years.
The first place to start when considering the increased optimism around Tampa is Smith. All that time he spent away from football last year -- when he couldn't find a job after the Chicago Bears fired him -- has enabled him to land a position with a team perfectly suited to his mentality. The Bucs didn't compile a 15-33 record over the last three seasons because they had no talent. They reached that level of ineptitude because their leadership was so lousy.
That isn't going to be a problem for Smith and new general manager Jason Licht. Smith won 56 percent of his games during nine seasons in Chicago because he knows a thing or two about playing good defense. When he arrived in Tampa, the Bucs already had a first-team All-Pro defensive tackle (Gerald McCoy) and linebacker (Lavonte David) and a two-time Pro Bowl safety (Dashon Goldson). Those were exactly the kind of pieces that Smith utilized when he erected the foundation of a Bears team that became a Super Bowl contender one year after his 2004 arrival in Chicago.
Smith used young talents who headlined the middle of his defense then -- defensive tackle Tommie Harris, linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and safety Mike Brown -- and he's about to do the same thing in Tampa. The head coach also has chosen wisely in free agency thus far. Smith and Licht quickly signed defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerback Alterraun Verner, two of the best players at their position on the open market. A few days later, they added quarterback Josh McCown, a 34-year-old journeyman who increased his stock by thriving with Chicago while Jay Cutler was sidelined last season.
Most importantly, Smith and Licht decided it was best to say goodbye to Revis and what would have been a $16 million salary. Revis simply wasn't worth that investment or the third-round pick that Tampa would've owed the New York Jets in this year's draft (the Bucs had thrown in a conditional pick on that deal when the trade was struck last offseason, a selection that now becomes a fourth-rounder). The beauty of Smith's Cover 2 scheme is that it doesn't rely on expensive "shutdown" cornerbacks to succeed. While in Chicago, he took less-heralded talents such as Charles Tillman, Nathan Vasher and Tim Jennings and turned them into Pro Bowl players because they fit his schemes more effectively.
In that regard, Smith is doing the same thing with McCown. McCown is entering the backside of his career, but that doesn't matter right now. What Smith always has wanted from his quarterbacks is the same thing McCown gave Chicago in an emergency situation last season: efficiency. If McCown can come close to doing what he did for the Bears in eight games in 2013 -- when he threw 13 touchdown passes and just one interception -- Smith will be more than happy with that result.
The reality is that the Bucs' incumbent starter, second-year veteran Mike Glennon, still has to prove that he is a legitimate franchise quarterback. Smith said as much before free agency began, and the Bucs can ill afford to spend this fall grinding through the growing pains of a young signal-caller. They are capable of winning fast. If Glennon really is good enough to hold the job, then he'll have gained more respect in the locker room by earning it over the next six months.
Now this isn't to say the Bucs are a perfect team at the moment. They still need more help at offensive line (after releasing left tackle Donald Penn and guard Davin Joseph), and years of bad drafting have led to depth issues that Smith and Licht will have to repair. They also need new left tackle Anthony Collins to produce (he received a five-year, $30 million deal after spending the last six seasons as a backup in Cincinnati) and third-year running back Doug Martin to stay healthy after missing 10 games in 2013 with a torn labrum. If Collins really is a hidden gem and Martin returns to the Pro Bowl form of his rookie season, the Bucs offense will be in solid shape.
The beauty of Smith's system is that he doesn't need that much offense to succeed. In an era where most teams want to build offensive powerhouses, he still believes that running the football, playing strong defense and relying on solid special teams play can lead to great results. The funny thing is, there is more evidence of that today than in recent memory. Instead of seeming antiquated in his nature -- which seemed to be the case when so many offensive-minded head coaches were being hired for vacant jobs last year -- Smith's position now might be catching on.
The Seattle Seahawks just won their first Super Bowl with a dominant defense. The San Francisco 49ers have played in three straight NFC title games -- and one Super Bowl -- largely because they have all kinds of talent on that side of the football. The Carolina Panthers also blossomed into the NFC South champions this year because they made a huge leap in their organizational thinking. Instead of hoping star quarterback Cam Newton could carry them to the mountaintop, they let linebacker Luke Kuechly, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, and his fellow defenders forge that path.
There's no reason to think the Bucs can't do similar things over the next two to three years. For one, it doesn't take nearly as long for a defensive-minded team to develop as it does one that is waiting for a franchise quarterback to mature. Smith's experience with the Bears means plenty as well. After spending most of his tenure working with whatever former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo supplied him, he now has all the requisite power he needs in building a roster.
In many ways, Smith could be taking the next step in his development as a head coach the way Pete Carroll did when he arrived in Seattle in 2009. The most important thing Carroll had going for him then was the faith of Seahawks owner Paul Allen, who allowed his head coach to do whatever was necessary to win. The Bucs now are showing a similar conviction in Smith. It says here that they will be pleased by how quickly that investment yields positive results.