TAMPA — This time last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a team awash in Pro Bowl-caliber talent and optimism. In that regard, at least, little has changed at One Buc Place during the past 12 months.
The Bucs are still a team brimming with Pro Bowlers. They have six on the roster — two fewer than last year. And like most teams this time of year, they are confident about their chances of playing beyond the regular season.
Most everything else about the Bucs, though, is different.
Tampa Bay players are reporting for training camp today as a team under new management, and with new coaches and new schemes on both sides of the ball. And where there are new coaches and new schemes, there are always new players.
Like the Kansas City Chiefs a year ago, the Bucs completely reshaped their roster during the course of the offseason, dispatching 26 of the 53 players, including nine starters, who were with them on Opening Day 2013.
Back are former Pro Bowlers such as safety Dashon Goldson, receiver Vincent Jackson, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, running back Doug Martin and guard Carl Nicks.
Gone are stalwart offensive linemen Donald Penn and Davin Joseph and cornerback Darrelle Revis — all former Pro Bowlers — as well as receiver Mike Williams.
New to the franchise are quarterback Josh McCown, defensive end Michael Johnson, Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner and center Evan Dietrich-Smith — all projected starters
The makeover was largely the work of head coach Lovie Smith, the one-time Bucs linebackers coach and former Bears head coach who, despite the depth of the roster overhaul, represents the most significant change of all. Brought in to replace Greg Schiano after Schiano pounded out a 4-12 finish with his iron fist in his second season on the job, Smith is everything Schiano is not.
He is NFL-tested and successful, having produced an 81-63 record, three division champions and one Super Bowl appearance during a nine-year stint as coach of the Bears, who fired him following a 10-6 run in 2012.
He is also a firm yet soft-spoken mentor who earns the respect of his players. As a result, he is at the root of the optimism the Bucs are expressing about the season ahead.
“He’s done it before,’’ said projected starting strongside linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who won a Super Bowl with the Saints in 2009 and all but begged the Bucs to take him back after Smith’s hiring.
“This is a guy who got fired after a 10-6 season, and you just don’t hear about stuff like that. But that’s the standard that Lovie sets. He sets the bar high, and we’re all here to get up to it, so I’m very excited.’’
Smith isn’t the only reason the Bucs are excited about their prospects for 2014. The defense he brought with him — the Tampa 2 scheme he learned while coaching Tampa Bay linebackers for Tony Dungy in the 1990s — is another.
It’s a zone-based scheme designed to force mistakes and takeaways, and the unquestioned leader of that unit, one of the team’s six Pro Bowlers, believes it will allow Bucs defenders to take the best advantage yet of their skill sets.
“We’re not going to be sitting on the line and waiting on anybody anymore,” two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said, referring to the restrictions imposed on defensive linemen under Schiano.
“We’re going to be an up-field, penetrating defense. Offenses are going to have to adjust to how we play now, and that’s why I’m excited. And I’m not just excited about what our line can do. I’m excited about what our whole defense can do.’’
Much of McCoy’s excitement is generated by the personnel changes the Bucs made on defense. In particular, he’s excited about the additions of right defensive end Johnson and nose tackle Clinton McDonald.
Both came to the Bucs as free agents — Johnson from the Bengals, McDonald from the Super Bowl champion Seahawks — and are expected to add some pop to a pass rush that ranked 23rd in the NFL in sacks with 35 last year.
The most notable of the personnel changes, however, came at quarterback, where Smith signed 35-year-old career backup McCown in the hopes he can build on a brilliant, though brief, run in Chicago last year.
McCown completed 149 of 225 passes (65.5 percent) for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception while filling in for injured starter Jay Cutler in eight games in 2013. Now, the Bucs are doing all they can to help him replicate those numbers.
Like the Bears, the Bucs have a towering array of passing targets that includes 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver Jackson, 6-5, 231-pound rookie receiver Mike Evans and 6-5, 260-pound rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
They also beefed up their running attack, adding several backs to a stable that thinned out quickly last year after the loss of Martin to a shoulder injury. And they are speeding up the pace of things.
Under new coordinator Jeff Tedford, in the NFL for the first time after spending more than 20 years coaching at the college level, the Bucs offense is expected to be up-tempo.
“We’ll be in different tempos,’’ Tedford said. “We’ll huddle quite a bit as well, so there’s really nothing much different than what you would normally see from somebody just going into a two-minute offense.”
The Bucs tried desperately during their offseason workouts to keep the fine details of Tedford’s offense under wraps, but the veil will slowly be lifted when training camp workouts begin Friday.
Shortly after that, the curtain will rise on the 2014 season. What lies between, Smith said, is a lot of hard work.
“We had a successful offseason program, but now it’s about that next step,’’ Smith said. “So, I can’t wait for training camp and to see the next phase, because I think we’re going to be a pretty good football team.’’