SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL:
FAB 1. LICHT BUILDING THE BUCCANEERS IN HIS IMAGE
When Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht had his first sit down with the Bucs beat writers in January of 2014 he came across as totally unassuming. Because Lovie Smith hired the novice G.M. some figured Licht might be the head coach’s lackey.
Licht even referred to himself as a “meathead scout” that wanted to operate behind the scenes when asked what his role would be within the organization. That would be a far cry from the role of departed general manager Mark Dominik, who was always out in front of the cameras and a very public figure in Tampa Bay.
How times have changed at One Buccaneer Place.
In two short years, Licht has been given complete power to run the organization by the Glazers and has become the driving force of the franchise. The Buccaneers are now Licht’s team more than ever and he’s shaping them in his own image – which is bold, fiery and competitive.
Bucs GM Jason Licht – Photo: Cliff Welch/PR
The man Smith hired was one that agreed with the Glazers that the head coach should be fired after a very disappointing 8-24 record, including a dismal 3-13 mark at home.
There was no internal power struggle between Smith and Licht, and ego was never involved. There also wasn’t a palace coup. Licht just has a burning desire to win, and win now … and keep winning.
When he arrived in Tampa Bay, Licht was originally given control over the 90-man offseason roster, while Smith controlled the 53-man in-season roster. Like most new general managers, Licht appeased the head coach and signed the players Smith wanted – primarily quarterback Josh McCown, defensive end Michael Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins.
When it was clear during the middle of a disastrous 2-14 season that McCown, Johnson and Collins weren’t panning out, Licht knew that he was going to have to have a very frank conversation with Smith in the offseason and that those three free agent flops were going to have to be jettisoned. That conversation ultimately began the shift of power in Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay went into free agency in 2014 with the best of intentions, but the Bucs ended up signing three losers – and losing was unacceptable to Licht. He wanted to cut the team’s losses as soon as possible.
The Glazers appreciated Licht’s quick admission of those mistakes in free agency and his desire to not compound the mistake by keeping them on the roster just for ego or for posterity’s sake. Licht knew his reputation might take a short-term hit, but he did what was in the best interests of the organization by turning the page and not continuing to waste the Glazers’ money on McCown, Johnson and Collins.
Licht seized even more influence in the draft during the 2015 offseason, which was natural in part because Smith was busy coaching during the 2014 campaign and didn’t join the scouting process in earnest until January like most coaches. By then, Licht and director of player personnel Jon Robinson were sold hook, line and sinker on Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, a player Licht had begun scouting while in Arizona during the 2014 season.
Jason Licht, Jameis Winston and Lovie Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Bucs didn’t spend as extravagantly in free agency in 2015 with Licht’s focus on getting Smith his hand-picked veterans that had played in the Tampa 2 whether it be from his days in Chicago or from playing in a similar scheme in Dallas. The Bucs draft was a huge success, netting four rookie starters in Winston, a leading candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, offensive linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander.
Those players starred on the field, while most of the free agents Smith imported barely made an impact in Tampa Bay as the Bucs defense got worse as the season progressed – even with Smith calling the plays. The Glazers took note of what was working within the organization, namely Licht’s scouting and the Bucs draft classes of 2014 and ’15 and Dirk Koetter’s offense led by Winston, and what was not, which was Smith’s game day management and Tampa Bay’s defense, which surrendered 26.1 points per game.
After a 6-6 start, the Bucs ended the season with a catastrophic four-game slide – losing to three teams with losing records in New Orleans, St. Louis and Chicago – that would ultimately cost Smith his job. Those losses cemented yet another top 10 draft pick for the Buccaneers and Licht was fuming.
He’d had it with the losing in Tampa Bay and told me in December, “I’ll be damned if we’re going to preside over a third straight year of picking near the top of the draft. We’re going to win.”
Following the 38-10 annihilation in Carolina in Week 17, the Glazers wanted Licht’s assessment of Smith and the coaching staff. Both ownership and the general manager agreed that a change was needed, especially on defense, which was Smith’s side of the ball. The secondary coaches, including Smith’s mentor, nickel cornerbacks coach Larry Marmie, and his son, safeties coach Mikal Smith, had to go.
Licht preferred Smith’s best friend, Rod Marinelli, instead of Leslie Frazier for the role of defensive coordinator in 2014 because of Marinelli’s intensity and fiery demeanor, but Marinelli couldn’t leave Dallas. Frazier, who had been stripped of the play-calling duties by Smith during the offseason, also had to go.
Although it pained Licht to recommend that Smith, his good friend, should be fired to the Glazers he did so. Not for power. Not so he could hire his own coach.
Bucs GM Jason Licht & HC Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Licht did so because it was the right thing to do.
Licht surmised that firing Smith was in the best interests of the franchise, and the young, 44-year old general manager would be doing the Buccaneers a disservice if he didn’t give the Glazers his honest assessment. Smith had to go, especially with a possible upgrade already in the fold in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who worked wonders with Winston and produced the league’s fifth-ranked offense.
It was a bold move, especially with Smith owed $10 million with two years left on his four-year contract. Although I had written several times during the 2015 season that the Bucs should fire Smith and promote Koetter, I didn’t necessarily think the Glazers would actually go ahead and do it unless Koetter got some interest from around the NFL from teams looking at him as a head-coaching candidate. But that’s what happened.
“It’s not doing it the way I want to do it,” Licht said. “It’s doing what’s best for the betterment of the team and keeping that in mind. Sometimes you need to be bold. Sometimes you have to do something that’s unpopular, but I’ve learned along the way from the best that usually the popular move isn’t necessarily the best move.”
The Glazers have grown tired of losing and want to win now, which is why they gave a veteran coach like Smith a four-year, $20 million contract and opened the checkbook for a big free agent splurge in 2014. As I wrote in last week’s SR’s Fab 5 column, the two best coaches in franchise history and their first two hires – Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden produced immediate results. Dungy ended a 13-year postseason drought in his second season, taking the Bucs to the playoffs in 1997. Gruden overhauled the offense in one offseason and guided Tampa Bay to its first and only Super Bowl title in 2002 just 11 months after replacing Dungy.
Jason Licht & Lovie Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The ever-observant Glazers saw Smith’s calmness and complacency, and they saw Licht’s fire and impatience and felt that the general manager’s demeanor and mindset more closely aligned with theirs. After seeing his drafting, including the determination to draft Winston despite his checkered past because he was truly the better quarterback and the best prospect in the 2015 NFL Draft, and his boldness for not wanting to settle the mediocrity that encapsulated the Smith era in Tampa Bay, the Glazers put Licht in complete control of football operations.
Licht already had his fiery quarterback in Winston, now he wanted a fiery head coach to lead the Buccaneers to the playoffs. The Glazers charged Licht with the responsibility of finding Smith’s replacement.
“It’s a huge responsibility and I was humbled by it,” Licht said. “I was humbled by their confidence in me. I felt very good. I was confident in myself with this because of my background in being around some of the best from Don Shula to Bruce Arians – and in between with Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and Pete Carroll. I’ve been around some really good ones and I saw some common threads of those guys. I used my experience and my background to put together a list of the things I was looking for to present to the owners when I came up with the decision.”
Fiery doesn’t have to mean yelling and screaming expletives like you’ll get from Gruden. It doesn’t have to mean animated high-fives and rah-rah speeches like you’ll get from Carroll.
Fiery can be a steely, matter of fact, win-at-all costs demeanor like the kind Licht has seen in Belichick and Arians – the two most recent head coaches he’s worked with.
You’ve seen Licht in his press conferences. He isn’t terribly animated himself. In fact, Licht has some “aw shucks” Midwestern Nebraska charm to him.
He smiles far more than he frowns, but man, Licht want to win. Licht has a burning desire to win and his own steely nature about him. He saw a kindred spirit in Koetter the more and more he spoke with Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator during the interview process.
“They gave me the power to go out and search, to do the research on the candidates, come up with the candidate list, go out and interview them and come back and tell them what my recommendation was,” Licht said. “The Glazer family does their own research, too. We had a lot of great discussions – a lot of great meetings together. It culminated in Dirk.
“At one point he became the leader and somebody was going to have to knock him off. It just became more and more clear. I interviewed, and I talked to and I researched a lot of football coaches – a lot of great ones. But it became more and more apparent that the more I talked to Dirk that he was the guy.”
What turned Licht on in the interview the most was Koetter’s competitiveness. He agreed with Licht that the Bucs should have won more games in 2015.
The Glazers & HC Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“Dirk and I both agree that there’s talent on this team,” Licht said. “There’s enough talent to compete. … At the core he’s just a competitor. His whole family, you’re around him and they are all competitors.
“I learned just how competitive he was. I knew he was a competitive guy. You can’t be a good coach in the NFL or in college without being competitive. Just sitting down with him … he’s got that steely look.”
Better game management is the key to winning some of the close games that the Bucs let slip away in 2015, and that’s an area Koetter feels he excels in.
“One of my favorite parts of football is the strategy and the game management part, the play calling part,” Koetter said. “So I think I’d be foolish to give that up.”
Licht couldn’t hide his excitement and enthusiasm for Koetter following his introductory press conference.
“It was extremely difficult last week, but it’s ended right now with one of my favorite days, and one of my best days as the general manager,” Licht said. “It’s right up there with drafting Jameis Winston. We got the right guy – the two most important people I think in the organization – besides the ones that write the checks – are the quarterback and the head coach. We’ve got the right unit.”
Licht has the Bucs’ version of Brady in Winston.
A bold move by Licht has delivered the Bucs’ version of Arians in Koetter.
Smith’s firing and Licht’s coinciding rise to power have suddenly placed a huge target on the general manager’s back. If the 2016 draft doesn’t measure up to the last two, and if Koetter doesn’t pan out as the team’s 11th head coach, the next one who will be fired at One Buccaneer Place is Licht.
Warren Sapp & Jason Licht – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
He understands the pressure and embraces it.
“I love pressure,” Licht said. “I love pressure. My entire life growing up – since I’ve been a kid – I’ve been through a lot of pressure situations. I have great parents – a great foundation – but I’ve been through tough times growing up I don’t want to get into. But pressure … the more pressure the better, so bring it on.”
Now you can see why the Glazers cast their lot with Licht and have entrusted him with so much power at One Buccaneer Place. He’s a bold leader that thrives under pressure and is a winner. That’s the type of coaches Licht has hired and that’s the type of players he’s going to fill Tampa Bay’s roster with.
FAB 2. KOETTER COULD BE THE NEXT ARIANS
Let’s get one thing clear. I’m going to get Koettered unless I retract that headline.
It should read Dirk Koetter Will Be His Own Man, Destined For Greatness – or something like that. Nobody really likes comparisons, especially NFL football coaches – unless the comparison is to Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick.
But in this case, the comparison between Koetter and Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is fitting when discussing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because the man who hired Koetter, general manager Jason Licht, had a hand in hiring Arians in 2013.
Cardinals HC Bruce Arians – Photo by: Getty Images
“There’s just a comfort level,” Licht said. “And it’s very similar to the comfort level I was around when we decided – Mr. Bidwell and Steve Keim in Arizona – the moment we decided that Bruce Arians was the right guy. That’s the best way to describe it.”
Licht loves the “No risk it, no biscuit” motto that Arians is famous for saying. Hey, it’s worked. Arians’ bold coaching style has helped him compile three double-digit winning seasons in his three years in Arizona, including a franchise-high 12 wins this season. Since moving to Arizona in 1988, the Cardinals have only had two seasons in 25 years in which they’ve won at least 10 games.
In Koetter, Licht sees some of the qualities of the coaches he has been around during his time in the league – Arians, Bill Belichick and Andy Reid, a good friend of Koetter’s.
“He has bits and pieces of all of them,” Licht said of Koetter. “Every coach is unique. He has bits and pieces of all of them. The most important ones right now that I thought of during the process were he’s authentic, he’s passionate and he’s a very, very intelligent offensive coach.”
Arians is a brilliant offensive mind that helped Pittsburgh win two Super Bowls. While Koetter is still searching for his first NFL title, he is getting his first shot at being a head coach at age 56 after coaching football for 30 years, including the last nine at the pro level. Arians had a similar wait, not hired as a head coach in the NFL until the age of 60 three years in Arizona.
“He’s a coach to the core,” Licht said about Koetter. “He coaches his kids as hard as he coaches his players. He’s constantly coaching. I’m going to refrain from using the term ‘coaching.’ It’s teaching. ‘I’ve got to teach these players this, and I’ve got to teach these players that.’ He has an incredible background.
“His stoicness and his confidence. I love the fact that he’s a coach at the core and he sees all of us – not just the players – his staff, the building as people he wants to teach and about what winning really feels like. What it looks like. He’s very, very demanding of himself. He’s his worst critic.”
Dirk Koetter at ASU – Photo by: Getty Images
Like it was for Arians, the long wait to get a shot at becoming an NFL head coach Koetter was intense. Koetter, whose last head coaching gig was at Arizona State from 2001-06, unexpectedly choked up and weeped at his introductory press conference. That even caught his wife, Kim, off guard.
“Very rarely,” Koetter’s wife said. “I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen him cry, so that was a big surprise. It’s been a long week with the hip surgery and working without a lot of sleep. When it finally happens … there have been years when there has been a lot of speculation, a lot of chances. Then here you are. This is it. It happened. We just found out. It has kind of come to a head. I wasn’t at all surprised when he talked about his parents, but some other things as he went through – he got emotional. He’s a tough guy. We hardly ever see that side of him.”
Arians and Koetter are both tough coaches that speak in a very matter of fact manner that Licht can appreciate.
“In my mind it helps,” Licht said about Koetter. “He’s been through everything. We use the word battle-tested all the time – a little too much. But he really has been. I’m going to lean on him through a lot of situations. We’re going to work together through everything. He’s got a very matter of fact way about him, which I like. He doesn’t mince words. In fact, when you come in and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ And he says, ‘I think that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!’ I walk out … and I’ve been Koettered. That’s a little saying I have. All of you guys [in the media] will get Koettered at some point in time.
“He’s definitely more matter of fact than I thought. He’s going to tell it like it is. He’s going to punch you between the eyes and tell it like it is. As a general manager, you don’t want someone telling you what you want to hear. You want someone telling you what you need to hear. To be quite frank, he’s very good for me.”
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians – Photo by: Getty Images
Arians trusted Keim and Licht to get him players in Arizona. All he wanted to do was coach ‘em when he got ‘em.
Koetter feels the same way in Tampa Bay and wants Licht to continue to handle all of the personnel decisions as the team’s general manager.
“We both came to an agreement that this is the way we both want it,” Licht said, “(Koetter) and I working together as a team.”
“Jason got his part in it, and I got my part in it,” Koetter said. “So do the other coaches. It’s a shared process throughout. Jason is good at what he does. I need to be good at what I do, and hopefully that works out.”
The good news is that both Licht and Koetter are already on the same page when it comes to player acquisition.
“It’s the draft,” Licht said. “Absolutely the draft. Now, we’re going to use free agency to supplement, but it’s absolutely the draft. Dirk is a huge believer in the draft.”
Part of the appeal of hiring Koetter as Lovie Smith’s replacement was not just the continuity on offense for quarterback Jameis Winston. It was also the fact that Koetter wanted former Jacksonville defensive coordinator and Atlanta head coach Mike Smith to be responsible for improving Tampa Bay’s defense.
“Couldn’t be happier,” Licht said. “Any player, in doing my research on Mike Smith, the first thing out of him is that ‘He’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.’ That’s going to be theme of this staff he’s putting together.
“Essentially he let him be head coach of the defense. Now Dirk wants to be involved in certain aspects of it and make sure he has his finger on certain things, but probably less than he would if it was anyone else.”
The Glazers love that premise because they’ve seen it work so well before. When Jon Gruden was acquired in a trade in 2002 he brought in a new offensive staff, but defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, linebackers coach Joe Barry and defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin remained intact. Gruden let Kiffin handle the defensive side of the Buccaneers while he focused on offense and it was a great football marriage.
Mike Smith & Jon Gruden – Photo by: Getty Images
Licht loves the premise because having a defensive coordinator that Koetter has already worked with before in Smith allows him to focus on the offense and the duties, responsibilities and time commitments that come with being a rookie head coach in the NFL.
“They trust each other,”Licht said. “Dirk is going to trust Mike to run the defense, install the defense and do it the way he wants to do it, which is something that Mike as a head coach gave authority to other people. Mike, he’s excited about getting back to his roots and running the defense like he did in Jacksonville.”
What makes Koetter a special coach is his knack for offensive wizardry. Like New Orleans’ Sean Payton, like Gruden, like Reid, his good friend, and yes, even like Arians, Koetter will follow the coaching model where the head coach continues to call the plays on offense.
“Bruce Arians said, ‘until I find someone that can do it better than me, I’ll keep doing it,’” Licht said. “I like the competitive attitude.”
And I like the Arians comparison – even if it gets me Koettered.
FAB 3. SMALL SCHOOL PASS RUSHERS SHINE AT EAST-WEST SHRINE
The East-West Shrine Game practices have helped players like defensive end Greg Hardy, cornerback Josh Norman, running backs Alfred Morris and Zac Stacy and wide receiver Allen Hurns get noticed by NFL scouts as Day 3 draft prospects and priority undrafted free agents. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers needing some help against the pass, I paid close attention to the defensive linemen and the secondary when watching practice this week.
I didn’t really gravitate towards anyone the secondary because the only player that truly caught my eye was Boston College safety Justin Simmons. But there were two defensive linemen that really stood out and presented themselves as Day 3 draft options for the Bucs.
The first was South Carolina State defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who is a bit short at 6-foot-1, 315 pounds. His body type reminded me of former Bucs defensive tackles Warren Sapp and Booger McFarland, and he also had a quick, explosive first step that was reminiscent of those two players, too.
Hargrave was dominant and unblockable during the week in one-on-ones and in scrimmages where he routinely gave Michigan center Graham Glasgow, who had a great week, fits during practice.
“He’s undersized, but a quick and explosive player,” said NFL Network’s Mike Mayock. “He’s flashed both days in the pass-rush drills and in the one-on-ones. And even in the team drills, you can see how quick his get-off is.”
SC State DT Javon Hargrave – Photo by: Scott Reynolds/PR
Hargrave is coming off a senior season in which he had 59 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, including five multi-sack games, and two forced fumbles. After recording 8.5 sacks his first two years for the Bulldogs, Hargrave had a breakout season in 2014, recording 16 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery as a junior.
Against Bethune Cookman, Hargrave took over the game, recording 11 tackles and a school-record six sacks.
“I was in one of the zones, I guess,” Hargrave said. “I didn’t even know how many I had at the time and the game was close. After the game the reporters told me I had six sacks and that’s when I said, ‘Wow!’”
Hargrave has played against the likes of Clemson, Arizona and Texas A&M and has some good film against upper echelon competition. But that record-setting performance against Bethune-Cookman is the thing of beauty.
“That one game changed my life – it really did,” Hargrave told the Salisbury Post. “Since that game, lots of scouts have come around to watch me. That game was the spark for a lot of good things that have happened to me.”
Hargrave, who said he’s seen the Bucs visit his practice at SC State and spoke with them at the East-West Shrine Game, broke the school’s career sack mark set by former Bucs defensive tackle Chartric Darby.
“I’ve got a good relationship with Darby,” Hargrave said. “He told me to come get his records. Warren Sapp was my favorite player growing up with his get-off. He was so quick off the ball. I was a Steelers fan growing up, but I gravitated towards Sapp. He wasn’t the biggest, but he was the quickest.”
The other defensive standout was Stony Brook defensive end Victor Ochi, whom I had previously written about in the December 18 edition of SR’s Fab 5. Ochi was listed at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, but weighed in at 6-foot-1, 244 pounds. Yet he was able to routinely beat offensive tackles that outweighed him by 80 pounds due to his explosion, great leverage and shoulder dip while turning the corner in pass rush drills.
Ochi was tied William & Mary cornerback DeAndre Houston-Carson, who accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl, for the Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year award. He finished 2015 with 13 sacks, including five multi-sack games, 16.5 tackles for loss and 47 tackles in addition to a forced fumble. He had 32.5 sacks, 51.5 tackles for loss and 182 tackles in his Seawolves career, in addition to four forced fumbles.
Stony Brook DE Victor Ochi – Photo courtesy of Stony Brook
“This is an opportunity for me to show what I can,” Ochi said. “It’s all about leverage. In football the low man wins. Tackles look at me and underestimate me, and they quickly find out that was a big mistake. I’ve looked forward to this opportunity to prove that I could have played at a bigger school.”
Ochi is a high-motor player and reminds me of Tampa Bay defensive end Jacquies Smith, who has the same type of burst off the line. Smith is also undersized, but has added about 10 pounds of muscle and bulk by hitting the weight room hard over the past year. Ochi has a similar frame and could get to 255 pounds in the NFL.
“It’s all about getting off the ball,” Ochi said. “I’m a lot smaller than a lot of the tackles I’ve played against, but one of my attributes is my speed. Speed kills, man. If they can’t touch me off the ball they can’t block me and it’s going to be a long day.”
Ochi, who played both left and right defensive end in college, said he tries to emulate two Pro Bowl pass rushers.
“I like to watch James Harrison when I stand up and rush and Cameron Wake when I’m down in my four-point stance,” Ochi said. “They both play with passion and tremendous explosion off the ball. They have heart, too. At the end of the day you have to want it more than the other guy.”
FAB 4. LIVIN’ ON A PRAYER AT THE EAST-WEST SHRINE
Entering my 22nd year covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I’m very blessed to get to watch football for a living. There are plenty of more difficult jobs out there, and certainly more important jobs than going to Bucs games and interviewing Bucs players and coaches.
While there is a plenty of work and huge challenges in owning and operating a sports website business like PewterReport.com, at the end of the day I get paid to watch football and I have to admit it’s a dream job. But like any job, the excitement eventually can wear off and the thrill fades over time.
Scott Reynolds & Jon Bon Jovi – Photo by: PewterReport.com
Running into the likes of former Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott, as I did at the East-West Shrine Game, is always a pleasure, but I covered the A-Train for all 12 of his years as a Buccaneer and I know there are Bucs fans out there that get a bigger thrill in meeting one of their local gridiron hero than I do in this stage of my life.
Yet every once in a while, there is a perk that come with my job that gives me a thrill as a credentialed member of the media. One of those perks unexpectedly came on Monday at the East-West Shrine Game practice when I got to meet one of my favorite musicians, Jon Bon Jovi.
I was a huge fan growing up in Kansas City and the first concert I ever went to was seeing Bon Jovi and Cinderella during the Slippery When Wet tour in 1986 at Kemper Arena at the age of 14. True story – the very first time I ever called Ticketmaster to order tickets for a concert I luckily got through on the first dial at 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning and scored fifth row center seats to Bon Jovi.
I arrived early to Monday’s East practice at Shorecrest Prepartory School, was shocked to learn that the lead singer of Bon Jovi was in attendance and immediately walked over to meet him before the sidelines of the football field filled up with NFL scouts, coaches and media members. I introduced myself to Bon Jovi and told him that I was a big fan of his music and that I covered the Buccaneers for PewterReport.com.
After spending a moment or two in the world of Bon Jovi fandom, telling him how much my wife and I and are kids love his music and that Livin’ On A Prayer is the greatest rock song of all-time, I asked him what brought him to St. Petersburg for the East-West Shrine Game. Bon Jovi, who founded the Arena Football League’s Philadelphia Soul in 2004, said that he was friends with East coach Charlie Weis and wanted to come down and have access to learn more about the game of football.
Jon Bon Jovi at Super Bowl XXXVII – Photo by: Getty Images
A huge New York Giants fans growing up in Sayreville, New Jersey, football has always been Bon Jovi’s passion outside of the rock n’ roll world. He’s very good friends with New England head coach Bill Belichick, which is where he met Weis (and Bucs general manager Jason Licht when he was with the Patriots), and Bon Jovi played the post-game show in San Diego, belting out “It’s My Life” just moments after Tampa Bay’s victory over Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Bon Jovi was also part of an ownership group that failed in its attempt to buy the Buffalo Bills in 2014. In our conversation, he told me he still dreamed of buying an NFL team one day and that he wanted to have a better understanding of the world of scouting.
There would be no interviews. It was obvious that he wanted to keep a very low profile in St. Petersburg and I didn’t even ask to put one of our chats on the record. Bon Jovi was on vacation, but it was a working vacation of a different kind for this rock star adorned in a Notre Dame t-shirt, as his son, Jesse Bongiovi, is a junior cornerback for the Fighting Irish.
Five minutes into our conversation, Bon Jovi started asking me about my job and what I did, and then asked me for the in-depth reasons as to why Licht and Tampa Bay’s scouts took a risk on a quarterback with some character concerns like Jameis Winston instead of squeaky-clean Heisman Trophy winner like Marcus Mariota with the first overall draft pick. He played Devil’s advocate and peppered me with questions that I was certainly qualified to answer, having championed Winston’s cause to be drafted by the Bucs a year ago.
As Tampa Bay fans, you know that Winston was thoroughly vetted by Licht and the Bucs, and I shared all of that with Bon Jovi. I told him that in Winston, Licht saw another Tom Brady – a talented, fiery leader with a burning desire to be great and to win. Mariota, while a great talent, doesn’t possess the same leadership qualities.
I gave Bon Jovi my Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant analogy. Jordan and Bryant were both prolific scorers and winners of several NBA championships. Both were legends and capable of taking games over, putting teams on their respective backs, dropping 50 points on an opponent and hitting the game-winner on any given night.
Jon Bon Jovi & Scott Pioli – Photo by: Mark Cook/PR
Yet the difference between Jordan and Bryant is that Jordan is an elevator – a player who elevates the play of lesser players around him like Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, John Paxon, Horace Grant and other Bulls back in the 1990s. Bryant wasn’t and isn’t an elevator. He doesn’t necessarily inspire others to be great, nor can he influence greatness in their play on the court like Jordan could.
Brady is an elevator. John Elway was an elevator. Winston is an elevator. I told him that Mariota reminds me more of Bryant than Jordan and that I don’t think he’s an elevator. Bon Jovi loved that analogy.
As we were wrapping up our 15-minute conversation, I gave him by business card and I asked if he could give a recorded video shout-out to my kids, which he was happy to do. Naturally, that won me Dad of the Year honors at home – and it’s only January.
What impressed me about Bon Jovi is that he came up to me about an hour later halfway through practice, remembered my name and asked me some more questions about the game of football and what scouts are looking for from the East-West Shrine practices. We also chatted on Wednesday and I asked him what he learned during the week.
Bon Jovi said the most interesting aspect was being able to sit in on scouts interviewing players and how the scouts had to try to separate fact from fiction and truth from B.S. Finding players that were smart, that worked hard and absolutely loved football were the key to successful drafting and personnel acquisition.
I doubt Bon Jovi really learned much from our chats. He learned far more from talking to Weis, former Patriots general manager Scott Pioli, who is currently the assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons and Mayock, who also is NBC’s Notre Dame TV commentator, as well as other NFL personnel folks than speaking with me. But that fact that Bon Jovi asked me some questions and wanted to engage in football talk really impressed me.
“The whole point is that he wants to be an owner,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “He’s gotten into the process of being an owner. I give him a ton of credit. In addition to be a rock superstar, he’s a tremendous businessperson. I think he recognizes that if he’s going to become an NFL owner is that the weakness is that he doesn’t understand the infrastructure of the NFL, the process and how you go about it. To take a guy from his stature to show up all week at the East-West Shrine all-star game, to sit in on interviews to try to learn more about his craft so that if he does become an owner he’ll become a more informed owner, he deserves a ton of credit.”
Jon Bon Jovi – Photo by: Scott Reynolds/PR
Bon Jovi even pitched in and volunteered to work the chain gang at practice for about half an hour on Wednesday morning. Dressed in sweat pants, a jacket, sunglasses and a hat, Bon Jovi tried his best to stay incognito and humbly learn more about the sport while keeping a low profile. There was no entourage and no bodyguard at Shorecrest Prep. A lot of people didn’t realize Bon Jovi was at practice this week. Some did, but perhaps were too star-struck to approach him.
I’m glad I got a chance to meet him because Bon Jovi is incredibly nice and down to earth. This guy is not your typical rock star and certainly didn’t act like one in St. Petersburg. He was humble, friendly and eager to learn. I came away incredibly impressed with Bon Jovi and I wasn’t the only one.
“This is Jon friggin’ Bon Jovi and he wants to learn the business side of football,” Mayock said. “Those are the kind of guys that are special in life. He doesn’t have to be here doing this, but he’s here.
“He knows that he’s never going to understand the X’s and O’s. He doesn’t need to. What he needs to understand is what the process is like, how do you value different people in an organization and what the scouting world is like. He’s attacking the whole thing from the bottom up and I give him a ton of credit.”
FAB 5: SR’s BUC SHOTS
• Here’s one more illustration about how much Jason Licht loves pressure. Mark Cook and I caught up with Licht at the Senior Bowl last year and Cook asked him if there was a part of him that wished he had the second pick in the draft so that the decision would be out of his hands and he would either be left with Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, thus giving him some cover from the media if the QB he selected didn’t work out because he was essentially forced to take him.
Licht bowed up, smiled and said, “No way! I want to take the shot!” He alluded to the fact that most coaches and general managers ultimately end up getting fired at some point in their NFL careers. It’s just the nature of the business. But Licht made it clear a year ago that he was the kind of guy that welcomes the pressure, wants to take his shot and if he go down swinging. He’s bold, and that’s rather inspiring.
• I was disappointed to learn that the East-West Shrine Game nixed former Bucs legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Sapp’s chances at coaching on the East squad this week at the last minute. Sapp was set to join former Bucs teammates Dave Moore and Mike Alstott and former Tampa Bay offensive line coach Bill Muir in coaching the college all-stars this week in St. Petersburg, but the coaching stint was denied at the last minute by one of the corporate honchos in charge of the game, much to the chagrin of East head coach Charlie Weis.
The move apparently was done for public relations reasons as Sapp’s arrest for solicitation of prostitution in 2015 tarnished his image. Sapp has been through the ringer since leaving football. He’s gotten divorced, filed for bankruptcy, been arrested and lost his job on NFL Network. Sapp looked at the East-West Shrine opportunity as a way to begin to use football as a way to repair his image in the market where he became an NFL legend, in addition to give back to the game that gave him so much love, personal fulfillment, money and fame.
I was looking forward to seeing Sapp coach others, and what an opportunity it would have been for the East defensive linemen. Few former players have such command of the X’s and O’s, the defensive line technique and the passion for football that Sapp has. Sapp looked at the East squad coaching gig as a bridge back to football and an opportunity for Sapp to start a fresh chapter in his life. It’s a shame the East-West Shrine Game didn’t see it that way.
• Credit the Glazers for doing everything they can to get legendary Tampa Bay strong safety John Lynch into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as voting takes place soon with this year’s HOF class announced after Super Bowl 50. The Glazers traditionally announce the inductees of the Bucs Ring of Honor in May, but they moved up the announcement of Lynch’s induction to January 22 to help his cause.
The thinking is that some HOF voters might have knocked Lynch for being up for the Hall of Fame, but he’s not even recognized as one of his former team’s great players. Friday’s announcement defuses that potential argument. Last year, the Bucs announced fullback Mike Alstott and quarterback Doug Williams’ induction on May 13, while announcing linebacker Derrick Brooks’ induction on May 6. It was announced that defensive tackle Warren Sapp was to be inducted on May 2 of 2013.
Congratulations to Lynch for this amazing honor, and I’m pulling for him to get into the Hall of Fame. He was a truly great player for the Buccaneers, but an even better leader and a wonderful human being.
• Former Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith hired the general manager in Jason Licht who would end up firing him, and hired the coach in Dirk Koetter that would be more impressive than he was and would ultimately replace him after one year. When he was the head coach in Atlanta, Mike Smith hired Koetter to be his offensive coordinator. Now that Koetter is the head coach in Tampa Bay, he hires Smith to be his defensive coordinator. That just illustrates how football can be a crazy business.
Jason Licht, Shelton Quarles and Jon Robinson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
• Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht was one of the few NFL head honchos spotted at the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla. this week. Many G.M.s skip the East-West Shrine Game but all attend the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. next week. Licht was putting in plenty of scouting time in part because of the loss of director of player personnel Jon Robinson, who was hired by Tennessee to be the Titans general manager.
“It’s extremely tough,” Licht said. “We knew we were going to be losing him at some point – at least I did. I knew the minute I hired him that I would be losing him shortly. He was excellent. He was to me what I was to Steve Keim in Arizona. You have to move forward. I’ll think very thoughtful about that as well. I’ve got great in-house people working with me and I’ll roll up my sleeves until I do – if I do replace him.
“He’s a hard guy to replace. You can’t replace Jon Robinson just like I can’t replace Mike Biehl or Rob McCartney or Shelton Quarles. Everybody is unique. We will find someone to do a great job in that role and that person will become a G.M. as well.”
• Bucs general manager Jason Licht got a great referral from Kansas City head coach Andy Reid when discussing Dirk Koetter as a candidate to replace fired head coach Lovie Smith.
“Andy Reid and Dirk are very, very close friends,” Licht said.
Koetter and Reid coached together at different colleges back in the 1980s. Koetter was the offensive coordinator at UTEP when Reid was the Miners offensive line coach (1987-88), and then both worked together at Missouri from 1989-91 when Koetter was the offensive coordinator for the Tigers and Reid coached the offensive line.
• Now that the Glazers have given general manager Jason Licht more power and the Bucs have hired Dirk Koetter as the team’s new head coach, the focus will shift from the front office to the assistant coaches and the players Tampa Bay will look to acquire in free agency and the NFL Draft in the next editions of the SR’s Fab 5 column to end the month of January and kick off February. The PewterReport.com staff will be traveling to Mobile, Ala. for live Senior Bowl coverage, so stay tuned to PewterReport.com and our Twitter account @PewterReport.
Make sure you are following us on Twitter if you are not already doing so. We’ll have a Senior Bowl preview for you to read on Monday as we travel to the premier college all-star game to see if the Buccaneers can find the next Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
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