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Buccaneers lighten up under Lovie Smith, Jason Licht

6:10 AM, Feb 26, 2014   |    comments
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)
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(USATODAY.com) - Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht can joke about coach Lovie Smith having final say over the roster.

In Licht's mind, the impact will be "none, zero, zero" - even if he won't offer specifics about how he expects to resolve things the first time he and Smith butt heads.

"We walk into a room, we shut the door, and when we come out we have the decision made," Licht told USA TODAY Sports last week at the NFL scouting combine, then added with a laugh, "Maybe we'll have a chalkboard with my wins and Lovie's wins and we just keep track."

It's a new era at Bucs headquarters, where a vibe of inclusion has replaced the tension and gloom of a 4-12 season marked by an eight-game losing streak, an ugly divorce from quarterback Josh Freeman and an outbreak of MRSA infections that struck three players.

League and union investigations into a breach of Freeman's privacy and the MRSA issue haven't been resolved. But the principals, including GM Mark Dominik and coach Greg Schiano, were shown the door.

In their place are Licht, the former Arizona Cardinals personnel director with ties to Bill Belichick, and Smith, the longtime Chicago Bears coach who emerged from his firing and a season away from the NFL as his usual, low-key self.

"I think whenever you have a chance to be in a place for nine years, the next place should be easier," Smith said at the combine. "There hasn't really been anything that's caught me off-guard ... or anything like that. Having a year off helps. I strongly recommend it."

On the day he was introduced as coach last month, Smith addressed roughly 150 staff members, starting off by telling the business personnel he understood the role he played in helping them do their jobs and he was in this to win games.

Smith also recommended reopening the team's weight room to all employees when players weren't using it - a subtle but meaningful gesture as the new regime tries to build the atmosphere it wants in the building.

"He's a really calming presence with the stress of a new job and dealing with free agency, the draft, our own evaluations all going on at the same time," Licht said. "Being around him actually brings down the stress level, because he's got that attitude: 'Hey, it's all going to get done.'"

To Licht, the situation in Tampa isn't entirely unlike the one he was facing a year ago in Arizona, where a 5-11 season in 2012 led to the ousters of coach Ken Whisenhunt and GM Rod Graves.

They left behind a roster with critical flaws but also enviable talent that showed up as the Cardinals rebounded to 10-6 in the NFL's toughest division, narrowly missing out on a playoff spot.

Smith referred several times at the combine to the Bucs' "great foundation" on defense, including defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte Davis, cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson.

The offense has talent at the skill spots but needs an answer at quarterback, just as the Cardinals' primary order of business a year ago under new GM Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians was to trade for veteran Carson Palmer to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald.

"But I would say this situation is better than what we were in 2012 at quarterback with the Arizona Cardinals, with Mike Glennon," Licht said of last year's third-round pick, who started 13 games after Freeman's unexpected exit. "Not that he's the entrenched starter right now. He needs to earn the job with the new regime."

The Bucs' cap is in good shape, too, with more than $6.7 million in carryover from 2013 and no major free agents-to-be. The Glazer family ownership group, long criticized for tight pockets, has spent above the league average over the past two years.

The Bucs own the No. 7 overall pick. And in Smith they have a coach who's been here before - one with an 84-66 career record, three playoff appearances and a Super Bowl trip - to turn players' attention forward in the coming months and ultimately make the call on which of those players stay once the door is closed.

"We've got a great road map put in front of us that we've designed," Licht said. "We're going to be proactive. We're going to look for a lot of value, and value doesn't necessarily mean cheap - it just means getting a great return on your investment.

"We've got some ammunition to do it."

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