Jan 6, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith is introduced as head coach during a press conference at One Buccaneer Place. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Buccaneers emerge as legit contender for NFC South crown

Those who know me (or follow my writing, at least) understand that I don’t believe in the NFL grading system. There’s just too many variables taking place in such a wildly unpredictable sport to assign a letter grade. Save for a self-serving purpose, the process is largely meaningless.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I urge you to brace yourselves: I’m about to defy my own logic. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers get straight As — top to bottom — for their excellent work in the offseason and NFL draft.

But before you brand me a hypocrite, allow me to explain how the team is going from the NFC South basement to, potentially, the penthouse.

For starters, Tampa Bay upgraded significantly on its coaching staff, transitioning from Greg Schiano, the miscast disciplinarian, to Lovie Smith, who led the Chicago Bears to 81 wins, three division titles, and one Super Bowl appearance before his unceremonious dismissal in 2012.

Smith then chose to surround himself with creative talent, bringing aboard former Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and ex-Cal coach Jeff Tedford as defensive and offensive coordinator, respectively.

Without yet adding a single player, the Bucs, reeling from a 4-12 season, already were better on paper.

Then came the big free agent additions, all immediate starters: Quarterback Josh McCown, cornerback Alterraun Verner, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, and defensive end Michael Johnson.

You also can’t ignore Tampa’s draft haul, which included 6-foot-5 wide receiver Mike Evans and 6-foot-6 tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the first two rounds.

Tedford has to be salivating with the toys — new and old — at his disposal.

The Bucs finished last both in total yards and passing yards per game in 2013. That will change when you add a healthy Doug Martin into the mix at running back, and Vincent Jackson working opposite Evans, with Seferian-Jenkins running down the seam.

Good luck trying to defend them in the red zone.

Smith inherited a playoff-caliber defense, which lost Darrelle Revis but adequately replaced him with Verner. That the Bucs didn’t draft a single defensive player speaks volumes about Smith’s confidence in the unit, which is shifting to a Cover-2 scheme.

Having restocked his team with veritable talent, Smith is ready to compete in the NFC South, which, more than any other division, resembles a game of musical chairs. Each year, there’s a different club taking home the South crown; the Panthers in 2013, Falcons in 2012, and Saints in 2011.

Despite enormous parity, the Buccaneers haven’t won the division since 2007. Smith believes it’s time for the tides to turn.

“We have the same goal as everyone. It’s to win games. To win our division. To win the Super Bowl. When does that happen? We’re going to start chipping away and pounding away until it happens,” Smith said, via the Tampa Bay Times.

He’s also aware that the Buccaneers took a giant leap forward this offseason, more so than his divisional counterparts.

“I think we’ve done all that we can do to this point,” Smith said. “We’ve done what we needed to do to be a good football team this season.

“This is a good-looking football team. It looks a lot better than on Jan. 1 when we started.”

In what could be his final head coaching stint, Smith will be tasked with integrating and utilizing all of the moving parts this season. Assuming that happens, there’s little doubt he can add to his impressive resume.

Up to this point, Smith has passed his tests with flying colors and gets an A++ (that’s two pluses) from me. It’s time to take the Buccaneers seriously again.

Tags: Jeff Tedford Josh McCown Leslie Frazier Lovie Smith Mike Evans Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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