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.