In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
The more you study the Buccaneers, the less you understand them.
Last year's Bucs were a team with roughly .500 talent that went 4-12 primarily because they were coached by this guy:
The Bucs made sweeping changes with the arrival of new head coach Lovie Smith and an all-star staff featuring college quarterback guru Jeff Tedford as offensive coordinator. There are new faces on just about every unit, of all shapes and sizes: rookies, Pro Bowlers, role players, 35-year-old journeyman quarterbacks. The sheer volume of changes makes analysis difficult, and the fact that there was so much mismanaged talent already on the roster just compounds the problem. Analyzing the Bucs is like trying to hit a moving target from a moving target on an obstacle course in a summer squall.
The new-look Bucs could go 11-5 or 5-11, but they are less likely to steer their ship into a reef the way the franchise has during the last two coaching regimes. The new brain trust, including GM Jason Licht and Love 'n' Jeff, brings an organized, structural approach to team building that will be a welcome relief after years of bipolarity.
Biggest Move: The Countdown
The Bucs made so many changes that focusing on one transaction makes no sense. Let's do a top-10 countdown instead.
10. Signing guard Oniel Cousins. Veteran multi-position offensive linemen don't get much attention, but Cousins could start at right guard or slide to the left if Carl Nicks (toe) is not as hunky-dory as advertised.
9. Drafting Charles Sims just in case Doug Martin and Mike James both get hurt again, an unlikely scenario now that no one on the coaching staff is likely to think "28 carries against the Seahawks? Why, that is both a brilliant game plan and a responsible rookie workload!"
8. Trading Mike Williams for the draft choice that became Robert Herron. Williams was one of the most exciting rookies of 2010, but his potential was crushed between the plate tectonics of two inept coaching regimes. Herron is a one-dimensional burner, but Williams no longer had any dimensions.
7. Signing defensive tackles Clinton McDonald and Michael Johnson. The teams that followed the Seahawks victory parade float and scooped up whoever fell off may end up with buyer's remorse: The Seahawks are pretty good at identifying and paying their essential players. McDonald's four-year, $12-million deal sounds a little steep, but he is a consistent performer who won't be asked to absorb many double teams with Gerald McCoy by his side. As for Johnson, the Bucs have been terrible at developing their own pass rushing ends, so why not import one?
6. Signing Anthony Collins and Evan Dietrich-Smith. Swapping out three-to-four fifths of the offensive line (depending on Nicks' health) in the offseason is risky and smacks of change for change's sake. If you remember anything about the 2013 Bucs, you realize that "change's sake" may be as good a reason as any to make some moves.
5. Drafting Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Evans can leap and reach over defenders for errant throws. Seferian-Jenkins, who has returned from a foot injury that hurt his draft stock, catches a little and blocks a lot. The Bucs could have used these guys in 2012 and '13.
4. Parting ways with offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, the unsung villain of the 2013 Buccaneers. Sullivan's game plans were tailored for a quarterbot with a laser guidance system that could fire footballs that broke the sound barrier, as well as titanium-shielded running tanks.
3. Winning the bidding war for prized veteran quarterback Josh McCown, who would have been available for the price of a waiver wire call and paperwork duplication fees from 2006 through 2012.
2. Swapping Darrelle Revis, who is so overrated he's underrated, for Alterraun Verner, who is so underrated he's overrated.
1. Replacing last year's head coach, a rabid ferret who found a whistle in a pile of garbage at a landfill, with Love 'n' Jeff, besties who rekindled their love for football during a magical 2013 retreat in Lovie Smith's basement. Lovie and Tedford's defensive and offensive schemes harken back to the turn of the millennium, but outdated strategies are better than tactics built upon the bedrock of loathing and resenting your own players.
Biggest Risk: Alterraun blows up, causes disturbance in The Force
Replacing Revis with Verner was an understandable move, which does not make it any less risky. Revis was a bad system fit with bad vibes. Verner is cheaper, more eager to be around, and is more of a Lovie Smith-type defender. Still, the Bucs sent a perennial All-Pro packing and replaced him with a guy no one had heard of before last September. This move has backfire potential.
I wrote an extensive scouting report on Verner before the start of free agency. The short version: Verner is great in space, anticipates route combinations well, knows his role in zone coverage and excels in "bail technique," which involves a deep drop at the snap to take away longer routes and give the cornerback a clear view of the field. On the downside, Verner does not press much, is not much of a run defender and can be beaten by quarterback-receiver combinations with excellent timing.
Verner's run stopping may be a problem in Lovie's defense, though great safeties and linebackers will cushion the blow. The zone comprehension, anticipation and willingness to play in space will all serve Verner well. Keep in mind that Lovie's "Tampa-2" roots do not mean the Bucs will play a Cover-2 zone for 70 snaps per game. It's more of a philosophy, like "progressive rock" or "Thai cuisine." Verner fits the philosophy, even if jamming a receiver and trading him to the safety while waiting for a dump-off pass is his best thing. Revis was more of a thick cut of prime rib on the Thai menu, one that cost $50.
Verner will be good. But with the Falcons and Saints receiving corps in the division, the Bucs need him to be great.
Biggest Question: Who's the quarterback?
No clue. There are not enough breadcrumbs to follow a trail. Oh sure, Josh McCown will start the season because Lovie knows him, and Lovie is your typical conservative defensive coach who prefers veterans. But who will be the quarterback beyond the Week 8 bye?
Every once in a while, an old backup quarterback has a low-interception season that gets everyone carried away. Damon Huard in 2006 is my favorite example: 11 touchdowns, one interception in late-season relief for the Chiefs, and suddenly Herm Edwards thought he stuck gold. Or how about Todd Collins for the 2007 Redskins: five touchdowns and no interceptions in three late-season wins. The Redskins were not suckered by the 36-year old Collins -- nothing could deter them from making Jason Campbell a star -- but another coach decided three years later to make Collins his primary backup, getting five interceptions in just 27 passes and an 0-for-4 effort in a playoff loss from the pushing-40 passer as a reward.
That coach's name: Lovie Smith.
Something short-circuits in the minds of defensive coaches when they see a low interception rate. Why, this 35-year-old quarterback has learned how to avoid turnovers, which all defensive coaches know are not common, inevitable mistakes but signs of personal and moral weakness. He may never throw an interception again! MY DEFENSE WILL BE UNSTOPPABLE AS IT WINS A SERIES OF 9-TO-0 GAMES!!! It goes without saying that 35 year olds who were buried on benches for a decade were buried there for good reasons.
While McCown was beating the Seneca Wallace Packers and picking apart the Cowboys' stand-still-and-stare-sir defense, Mike Glennon was shoveling out the Augean Stables. Like many rookies, Glennon was a bad situational quarterback. Unfortunately, he was stuck in many bad situations. Here are three examples:
-- When the Bucs had the ball inside their own 20, Glennon completed just 57 percent of his passes (not awful) but endured four interceptions and eight sacks. Glennon dropped back to pass 101 times inside his own 20, accounting for 22 percent of his pass attempts plus sacks. There was no sense that the coaching staff recognized a rookie with his back to the end zone against the Cardinals defense should be given some training-wheel play calls.
-- From his 31st pass of a game on, Glennon completed just 46.1 percent of his passes, averaged just 4.12 yards per attempt and threw three of his nine interceptions. As you might expect, most of those attempts came at the end of desperate losses to very good defenses like the Panthers, Cardinals, Niners and Saints.
-- Glennon was 3-of-10 on fourth downs, with an interception and a sack. Glennon was asked to pass on five fourth-and-10s and a fourth-and-eight. His interception came on fourth-and-26 against the 49ers. Because you are curious: Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were a combined 8-of-13 with one interception on fourth-down conversions, though most of their attempts came on fourth-and-short. They were asked to convert just one fourth-and-eight and one fourth-and-10 all year, with Brady succeeding on both.
Glennon was not Matt Ryan 2008 last year, but had he played for sane coaches and gotten the opportunity to spray short passes in 20-14 victories instead of charging headlong onto the killing field, he might now be considered a prospect on the rise. Instead, Love 'n' Jeff reportedly tried to trade him in the spring, though they have since made soothing sounds about his improvement during minicamps.
At least the eventual quarterback now has a full complement of weapons: Vincent Jackson, Evans, Martin, Sefarin-Jenkins, Brandon Myers, Herron and some roster-fodder Chris Owusu types. Competent game plans, capable receivers and organizational stability can make a journeyman backup and an inexperienced, slow-footed fastballer look great.
Tedford sometimes coaches like he believes all the world's problems can be solved by holding the football closer to your chin. Lovie has spotty taste in quarterbacks. But if any coach can coax double-digit wins out of youngsters and journeymen, it's the guy who rode Rex Grossman to a Super Bowl.
Lavonte David is currently the NFL's Player Who Does Not Get Enough Credit. After Lovie is done with him, he will be Defensive Player of the Year.