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Lovie Smith says the Buccaneers are “OK” with Jameis Winston’s character issues, but I don’t believe him. Besides, Marcus Mariota could be a better fit for Tampa Bay’s offensive plans

By Greg A. Bedard
February 20, 2015

Lovie Smith caused a tidal wave of media copy on Wednesday with his declaration that the Buccaneers are just fine with the character of former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room,” Smith told beat reporters before heading to the podium at the combine. “He’s been accused of a crime. There’s an allegation. He went through our [criminal justice] system. I have faith in [that] system. He went through it. He went through the school justice system. He was cleared. … So what else can you do?

“That’s what we have to go on. We’ve done a lot of research. We’re going to do a lot more research. … But from what I know right now, yeah, we’re OK with where he is.”

After that, you could almost hear the pencils of draft geeks everywhere scribbling Jameis Winston’s name down as the first overall pick in their latest mock drafts.

Excuse me if I’m not buying it.

Look, I think Smith is one of the most respectable people in the NFL. He’s a man of great character and terrific leader of men. But he’s also one of the worst serial offenders when it comes to the liars’ season that is the NFL offseason. When I covered the NFC North, it used to be comical to listen to Smith heap great praise on his offense and/or quarterbacks such as Rex Grossman, Brian Griese, Kyle Orton and, of course, Jay Cutler. Smith also loved all his offensive coordinators, right before he tossed them out with the trash. I’m not calling Smith deceitful. He’s just that nice of a guy. He’d rather say something positive (yet false) rather than degrade someone publicly.

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I can hear what you’re thinking. That’s all well and good, but he was pretty convincing about Winston.

You want an example of convincing? Let’s get in the time machine and go all the way back to 2014. Remember when Darrelle Revis was a member of the Buccaneers and Smith went out of his way to say he was keeping the All-Pro defensive back?

Lovie Smith to keep Darrelle Revis with Buccaneers — TheMMQB.com

Lovie Smith has big plans for Darrelle Revis in Tampa — NFL Network

Bucs deflect Revis trade speculationTampa Tribune

An excerpt from that last story:

Although he is a big proponent of the zone-based Tampa 2 defense and may use that scheme as his base coverage, Bucs coach Lovie Smith says the Bucs will play more man-to-man schemes than zone schemes.

“We’re primarily going to be a man team,” Smith said during a break at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last week. “Whether we win or lose is going to be based on how we play man coverage.’’

Revis is considered the best man-to-man cover corner, with a contract that is scheduled to pay him a non-guaranteed $16 million in 2014.

Headline two weeks later: Bucs might be seeking trade for Darrelle Revis

Just to recap, that’s two tall tales told by Smith. He was using the man-to-man conversation as evidence for why Revis would be a good fit. But then Revis was jettisoned and Smith’s defense rarely played man-to-man. It was either Smith’s old Tampa 2 scheme (red zone) or Cover 3 (most of the time). We all know the rest of the story: The Buccaneers had the league’s 23rd ranked passing defense and finished 2-14. Revis got his money from the Patriots, played a ton of man-to-man defense and won the Super Bowl.

So, tell me again, why I should believe Smith about Winston?

After releasing Josh McCown the Bucs are in desperate need of a quarterback, and they might very well take Winston over Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. Winston is the easiest on-field projection in this draft, but he’s got serious red flags, especially for someone who would instantly become the face of a franchise. Mariota is more of a projection, but he would be a dream as the face of a franchise. I’m not buying Winston over Mariota just yet. And I’m not sure that I ever will, at least for the Bucs. It doesn’t make much sense. Of course, I said the same thing about releasing Revis last year before and after it happened, so maybe I just don’t understand the regime in Tampa.

Some tealeaf reading:

  • After a disastrous first season, Smith and general manager Jason Licht have to make the right selection in this draft, and they’re going to take a quarterback. Mike Glennon, a third-round pick in 2013, is the only QB on the roster (I really like Glennon, but think he’s going to be traded at some point). So with the first overall pick, they’re going to take one of the highest character risks for a first-round quarterback, possibly ever? I don’t see it. The Bucs are trying to establish a program in Smith’s mold, and the quarterback has to be the catalyst, the tone-setter. To me, Mariota is Smith’s reflection in a mirror: bullet-proof character, relentless work ethic, commands respect, speaks softly but carries a big stick, and boring.

 

  • The only other time Smith had a high draft pick, fourth overall in the 2005, he and Bears general manager Jerry Angelo used it on a character risk, former Texas running back Cedric Benson. He was a constant headache on and off the field, and was released after just three seasons. I don’t see Smith wanting to go through that again, especially with his quarterback. Then again, you could make the case that Smith is confident that he can steer Winston in the right direction. He couldn’t with Benson or Tank Johnson, but NFL coaches often have delusions of grandeur regarding their own powers.

 

  • If there’s any offensive staff other than Philadelphia’s that can utilize the talents of Mariota, it’s Tampa’s. Smith made a brilliant choice snagging Dirk Koetter to be his offensive coordinator. He replaces Jeff Tedford, who had health problems in September and took a leave of absence. The problem that most NFL teams have when tailoring their system to new quarterbacks coming from the spread offense in college is that they’re trying to do it with coaches who have long NFL histories. Koetter has a long history at the college level and is known as an innovator. People will point to the system that Koetter ran with the Falcons as a rebuttal that he wants a drop-back quarterback, but that would be false. That was just Koetter fitting his system to Matt Ryan. And they actually ran some spread principles because Ryan moves much better than people realize. If you gave Koetter some truth serum, he’d tell you he wants to run a fast-pace, no-huddle system. While Winston can certainly do that, Mariota is the better fit.

 

  • When Oregon coach Mark Helfrich was asked about the biggest influences in his career, he named Chip Kelly first and Koetter second. They worked together for nine straight years as Koetter took Helfrich from Oregon to Boise State to Arizona State. Coaches love it when they have a guy on the inside when it comes to selecting a player. I guarantee you that Helfrich has told Koetter something along the lines of, “Mariota is the guy you’ve been looking to run your system. And you’ll never have to worry about him. You can’t lose. Trust me, this is the guy.”

 

  • Smith and Koetter hired Mike Bajakian from the University of Tennessee to be the quarterbacks coach, and he has shown preference for a modified spread offense. He doesn’t need the run-pass threat to make his offense work (Bajakian will be running Koetter’s system in any event), but it helps. In short, if you were to assemble a team capable of making Mariota as successful as possible at the pro level, the Koetter-Bajakian tandem is the best outside of the Eagles’ coaching staff.

 

To be clear, I think Winston and Mariota will both be stars in the NFL, assuming Winston can mature and overcome his off-field issues. And maybe the Bucs wind up taking Winston. It wouldn’t necessarily shock me. I just have a hard time seeing that happening given what’s at stake for Smith. This decision will determine whether or not he sees a second contract in Tampa. If he gets it wrong, Smith will never be a head coach in the NFL again. With that in mind, would you stake your career on Winston? I certainly wouldn’t. I’d much rather get progressive assistant coaches with strong college backgrounds and go with the guy who will be a good NFL quarterback (with a chance to be great), knowing I can sleep soundly every night because he’s a model citizen.

I also know that I’m not going to believe Smith is “OK” with Winston’s character, just because he said so. There’s too much history there.

NICKEL PACKAGE

1) The way Cowboys coach Jason Garrett talked up pending free agent DeMarco Murray on Wednesday, you would have thought Garrett was Murray’s agent. Garrett lauded Murray’s unique abilities that wouldn’t make it easy for the Cowboys to just plug in another back if Murray left. Garrett spoke a lot of truth, especially about Murray’s vast talents, which he has honed over the years, and his improved durability. But with Dez Bryant also unsigned, there doesn’t seem to be a way to bring both back. Bryant isn’t going anywhere. It’s much easier to find a running back than it is to find an elite receiver. The best course for Murray coming back is to wait for free agency and see if there is a soft market for Murray, thus lowering the price tag. But that looks like a long shot. And if I’m the Cowboys, I feel quite confident replacing Murray in either free agency or the draft given their offensive line.

2) New Bears coach John Fox said this week that the team will be using a 3-4 alignment in the base defense. With the rise of sub packages, they won’t be in it all that much, but if you can’t stop the other team in base, they’ll never let you out of it. I’ve seen a few teams transition to the 3-4 over the years, but I don’t think I’ve seen one with a worse personnel fit than the Bears. All three defensive ends they paid last year (Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston) are definitely 4-3 players. This should be interesting.

3) Mike Shanahan’s tales about Robert Griffin III and owner Daniel Snyder to ESPN-980AM in Washington this week (via the Washington Post) weren’t kind to either. Shanahan said that Griffin, with the owner’s urging, told Shanahan after his rookie season what plays were acceptable and unacceptable going into the next season. I still think Griffin, who comes off as a diva, can revive his career, but not if he feels empowered by Snyder’s meddling. That can’t happen.

4) Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin told ESPN-710AM in Seattle that his foul touchdown celebration in the Super Bowl (I won’t even attempt to describe it) was aimed at Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis. "I spent a lot of time those two weeks prior to getting ready for that game just focused on my individual matchup with him and I put a lot into it, and in that moment, I guess you could say it was just kind of a built-up frustration I was letting out in that sequence, you know, between him and I," Baldwin said. "Obviously there was competitive stuff going on in that game, and in that moment, I just let out what I felt personally."

Frustration? Competitive stuff? Is Baldwin serious? He should have just said, “I’m a child, so what did you expect?” Actually, that’s an insult to children. My 7-year-olds are more mature than that. Grow up, Doug.

5) With the decline of the 49ers’ offense last season, the shine is off receiver Michael Crabtree and running back Frank Gore as they enter free agency. There will also be flashier players on the free-agent market, but I would expect the smart and accomplished front offices to be very interested in both should they hit the market. They are both still very good and well-rounded football players. They do everything well. Wouldn’t be surprised to see the Seahawks show interest in both, depending on the price tag, especially if Marshawn Lynch retires.

 


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