by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It’s nothing new for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to pluck a head coach from the college ranks; they did it at the inception of the franchise when then-owner Hugh Culverhouse tapped legendary Southern Cal HC John McKay to become the Bucs’ first-ever coach in 1976. Then, in 1987, Tampa Bay went the college route again when heisting Ray Perkins from Alabama.

No matter the franchise history, in what qualified as one of the more-curious offseason coaching hires in the NFL, ex-Rutgers HC Greg Schiano was lured to Dale Mabry Highway to replace the failed Raheem Morris regime that crashed and burned a year ago as the Bucs sunk to 4-12 after an encouraging 10-6 mark the previous season.

Early evidence on the new Schiano era has been mixed, as Tampa Bay impressed in winning its preseason opener against downstate Miami (also with its own new HC, Joe Philbin), by a 20-7 score, but left a lot to be desired in the home debut against Tennessee when on the short end of a 30-7 scoreline. NFC South sources suggest the latter effort might be more indicative of what’s to come this fall.

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Oddsmakers do not seem to be expecting much, posting the Bucs among the longer shots on the board heading into 2012. Las Vegas sports books rate Tampa Bay no better than 16/1 to win the NFC South, 33/1 to win the conference, or 100/1 to win the Super Bowl. Sources report that Bucs action has not been especially brisk.

Nevada wagering outlets also have Tampa Bay’s season wins at a modest six, suggesting that few should hold their breath for a Buc resurgence this fall.

Schiano did not appear to be the first choice of the Glazers, who were, like predecessor Hugh Culverhouse decades ago, apparently scouring the college level (Oregon’s Chip Kelly also reportedly one of the finalists) for their new coach. Schiano, whose last NFL experience was in 1998 as the Bears’ DB coach, is also a departure from the chest-bumping, high-energy Morris; the ex-Rutgers mentor is all about discipline and organization, something the Bucs were lacking a year ago as their season ended with a disastrous 10-game losing streak.

To aid in his transition back to the NFL, Schiano has enlisted the help of former Cowboys assistant and Browns HC Butch Davis to be his special assistant this fall in hopes of avoiding some of the trapdoors Schiano has probably forgotten about in his 14 years away from the league.

Yet NFC South observers find plenty of reasons for concern at Raymond James Stadium, particularly the alarming regression of QB Josh Freeman, who appeared to make a huge breakthrough in his sophomore NFL season of 2010 when tossing 25 TD passes and only six picks. But Freeman (left, sacked in a December loss vs. Dallas) faltered badly in his third season, tossing 22 interceptions last fall, as his mechanics became a mess. New o.c. Mike Sullivan is tasked with putting Freeman back on course, but the learning curve might be stunted with Freeman forced into absorbing his third different offense in four seasons.

As for new o.c. Sullivan, he also hasn’t been a play-caller until this year, most-recently Eli Manning’s QB tutor with the Giants.

Freeman’s supporting cast could be upgraded, however, as the Bucs inked perhaps the top wideout in the free-agent ranks, ex-Charger Vincent Jackson, as well as All-Pro G Carl Nicks from the Saints to help solidify what was an injury-depleted OL from a year ago. Tampa Bay also spent its second first-round choice on versatile Boise State RB Doug Martin, who figures to split carries with incumbent LeGarrette Blount (right), expected to provide the “thunder” to Martin’s “lightning” for the infantry.

Splitting carries between those two looks to be in order as doubts surround whether Martin is durable enough for a featured-back NFL workload. A preseason groin strain suffered by Blount, however, has the coaching staff concerned due to lack of quality depth in the backfield.

The addition of Jackson (left) from San Diego should at least provide a quality downfield target for Freeman, although Schiano and Sullivan would like for ex-Illinois WR Arrelious Benn, who flashed plenty of big-play upside in his first two years in the league, to return to the fold in time for the regular-season opener vs. Carolina after suffering a sprained MCL on the second day of training camp.

Keep in mind that Schiano is hellbent apt to focus upon installing a ground-oriented, ball-control offense to not only take some pressure off of Freeman, but also keep the D” off the field.

Speaking of defense, it's a new-look stop unit as well, and another former Giant coach, Bill Sheridan (whose 2009 G-Men “D” was the second worst in team history), will be aligning the Bucs in 4-3 looks.

Sheridan has his hands full with a platoon that allowed a franchise-worst 494 points a year ago. Predictably, Tampa Bay went for “D” in the April draft, as Boise RB Martin was the only offensive player taken with the first five picks.

Alabama safety Mark Barron (right), Tampa Bay’s first pick at number seven overall in Round One, figures to move into the starting lineup right away, as does ex-Lion CB Eric Wright, the top defensive FA addition. Veteran Ronde Barber, now 37, has been moved to free safety by Sheridan, but the Bucs are always keeping their fingers crossed regarding the status of CB Aqib Talib, who has been involved in a series of off-field incidents and narrowly avoided more disciplinary action when an expected late-June trial in Texas was avoided when assault charges were dropped.

The thought persists, however, that the presence of Talib is just another disturbing incident waiting to happen, and how he fits into Schiano’s accountability mantra remains to be seen.

NFC South sources at least indicate that Barron is unlikely to be overwhelmed in his NFL debut, having been schooled in Nick Saban’s advanced defensive schemes at Tuscaloosa.

More immediate help from the draft likely comes from second-round selection LB Lavonte David, a former juco star who was a big hit for Bo Pelini’s defenses at Nebraska. David has already been penciled into the RLB position, although Sheridan’s bigger concern regards holdover MLB Mason Foster, whose efforts have been inconsistent in the past.

Sheridan must also hope that he can keep DTs Gerald McCoy and Brian Price (left) healthy, something the Bucs already couldn’t do with DE Da’Quan Bowers, lost for the year due to a torn Achilles tendon in the offseason. Improving a pass rush that ranked last in NFL sacks a year ago with a mere 23 is another concern for Schiano and Sheridan.

Along with their 4-12 straight-up mark a year ago, the Bucs also regressed to 4-12 against the spread in 2011. Curiously, Tampa Bay’s spread fortunes have teeter-tottered over the past three seasons under Morris (6-10 in 2009, 9-6-1 in 2010, and then the poor 4-12 a year ago). As for Schiano, he delivered mostly-positive spread results at Rutgers, but there’s no guarantee that success translates from the Big East into the NFC South.

Summary...The Bucs have swung between some extremes the past couple of years, but after losing their last ten games a year ago and finishing the 2011 campaign as arguably the NFL’s worst team, it seems risky to assume a quick recovery. The combination of a new regime, Greg Schiano’s long absence from the NFL sidelines, and QB Josh Freeman’s alarming regression last season are all red flags. Not to mention a tough schedule with three rugged NFC East foes and improving Carolina in the first four games before the bye week in early October.

Maybe Tampa Bay won’t be quite as bad this fall, but six wins still looks like a pretty high hurdle for the Bucs to clear, especially if Freeman can’t rediscover the form that made him one of the NFL’s most-promising QBs two years ago. It looks like a somewhat-bumpy transition year for Tampa Bay.


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