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FAB 1. Shining Licht Leads The Bucs Back To The Playoffs
During my first lengthy sit down with Jason Licht in October of 2014, I came to know very quickly that he was a different breed of general manager. I knew right then he was going to be the general manager that turned the Buccaneers around, and that’s why I’ve supported most of the personnel decisions he’s made and the reasoning behind them.
Literally a minute into our first discussion, the initial question I posed to Licht wasn’t even phrased as a question. I simply blurted out, “Michael Johnson.”
Licht shook his head and smiled a bit nervously and said, “Wow. You’re hitting me with a big one right out of the gate. Off the record? Yeah, I made a mistake.”
I was floored by Licht’s answer.
Johnson, a high-priced defensive end signed from Cincinnati in free agency, had underwhelmed in the preseason and was battling through an ankle injury at the time that caused him to miss two games after the season opener. He had just two sacks in the first four games of the season and Licht was already ready to move on from him.
It would have been easy for Licht to blame the ankle injury for Johnson’s slow start. It would have been easy to blame Johnson’s transition to a new team with a new system for his lack of production. It would have been easy to blame the fact that the Bucs just weren’t a very good team yet, coming off a 4-12 season under Greg Schiano the year before.
But Licht didn’t make any of the excuses that I was used to hearing from previous Bucs general managers about failed personnel moves.
Johnson was soft, and that’s what Licht was concerned about. But Licht had just been hired by new head coach Lovie Smith and wanted to dutifully give him the players he wanted in free agency. Smith wanted Johnson, and Licht signed on to the idea of bringing in the 6-foot-7 pass rusher from Cincinnati.
Johnson would go on to record just two more sacks during the rest of the season, which didn’t surprise Licht at all, as he was already set to move on from Johnson just a few weeks into the 2014 season. Just one year after signing a five-year, $43.75 million deal with $24 million in guaranteed money, Licht cut Johnson along with quarterback Josh McCown and left tackle Anthony Collins – three prized free agent signings in 2014.
When those three players were cut in the 2015 offseason following a dreadful 2-14 season, Licht’s words from October lingered in my head.
“I made a mistake.”
Ex-Bucs DE Michael Johnson – Photo by Mark LoMoglio/PR
It was the most un-general manager-like answer I’d ever heard in my nearly two decades worth of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Rich McKay, who was Tampa Bay’s general manager when I began covering the Bucs in 1995, was as slick as a politician and rarely admitted a mistake. This was a guy who took the credit for the personnel decisions of Jerry Angelo, Tim Ruskell and head coach Sam Wyche, and also hung on to former first-round pick Eric Curry for five years – five years! – when it was obvious after two seasons that Curry was a bust.
Bruce Allen was a general manager with a slick car salesman vibe that clearly didn’t know personnel. He never admitted a mistake. Allen’s specialty was salary cap management, and he was fairly good at it, cleaning up the cap mess that he inherited from McKay. But the Bucs drafted just one Pro Bowler in five years under Allen and relied too heavily on aging veteran free agents.
It turns out Mark Dominik wasn’t slick enough. While he was better at personnel than Allen was, drafting the likes of Gerald McCoy, Doug Martin and Lavonte David, both he and young head coach Raheem Morris were put in an unenviable position with the Glazers limiting spending from 2009-11. Then Dominik drafted the wrong quarterback in Josh Freeman and hired the wrong head coach in Greg Schiano to seal his fate.
Every general manager I had come in contact with had mastered the art of CYA – cover your ass – when it came to dealing with the media.
Blame someone else.
Don’t admit mistakes.
Yet here was Licht, a salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner with the grinding work ethic of a college scout, going against the grain and admitting a mistake to me right out of the gate back in October of 2014. That left an indelible impression on me, especially considering the fact that he barely knew me outside of reading my SR’s Fab 5 columns in his first few months on the job.
Bucs GM Jason Licht & ex-HC Lovie Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
You see, the 2020 playoff-bound Buccaneers are the team that Licht built.
He’ll hate me for writing that because he always wants his team of personnel men, scouts and coaches to get the credit, too. But when he walked in the door in 2014 he didn’t have much to work with outside of McCoy, David, Martin and an aging Vincent Jackson at wide receiver. Four good players and a ton of holes to fill all over the roster.
Since 2014 Licht has had some remarkable success in personnel through the draft, through free agency, through waiver wire claims and through trades – and he deserves credit for picking the right coach in Bruce Arians and for luring him out of retirement. But it is how Licht has dealt with his failures – quickly – that has helped the Buccaneers get to 11-5 and a long-awaited playoff berth in 2020.
Licht doesn’t hang on to mistakes because he knows that failing to move on from misses out of ego, or failing to admit a mistake simply negates the personnel hits when it comes to roster development. Hanging on to mistakes is the fatal flaw that eventually dooms general managers around the league, and has done so previously here in Tampa Bay.
Admit your mistake.
Move on – quickly.
Johnson, McCown and Collins.
All one-and-done in Tampa Bay.
Licht also parted ways with other failed personnel moves, such as Martin, a player he re-signed to a multi-year deal, Vernon Hargreaves, a former first-round pick, and Noah Spence, a former second-round pick, before their contracts expired because he had seen enough – that those players weren’t good enough to win with.
NFL rosters have room for just 53 players. Getting rid of the bad players is just as important as finding good players, and Licht has done that well, especially after his failed 2016 draft class. His drafts since then have been remarkably better and helped this team finally get to the postseason and win 11 games this year.
Bucs GM Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Yet it wasn’t all misses in Licht’s first season as general manager. He did have a massive hit with his first-ever draft pick back in 2014 – future Hall of Fame receiver Mike Evans, who has re-written the Bucs receiving record book and made NFL history with his seventh consecutive 1,000-yard season to start a career.
And Licht saw enough after just one 2-14 season with Smith at the helm to realize that he needed to take full control of the franchise, and near the very end of the 2015 season he went to the Glazers to state the case to fire the man who hired him. That took a great deal of courage by Licht – to fire Smith and replace him with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in 2016, which seemed like the right move at the time because of the continuity it ensured with new quarterback Jameis Winston, the first overall pick in 2015.
As much as the Glazers have been criticized for being impatient with the team’s head coaching hires and creating turnover by firing many of them after two or three years, ownership wisely kept the right man – Licht – each time. And year after year, decision after decision, the Bucs have gotten better as a result because Licht has become a better general manager year after year, too.
Koetter was better head coach than Smith. Arians is better than Koetter.
Mike Smith was better defensive coordinator than Lovie Smith. Todd Bowles is better than Mike Smith.
Winston was a better quarterback than McCown. Tom Brady is better than Winston.
While I have appreciated Licht’s honesty and willingness to admit mistakes, the Glazers have appreciated it even more because he is spending their money on players.
The last time I spoke with Bucs co-chair Bryan Glazer was in the spring of 2019 at the NFL Owner’s Meeting. Due to COVID-19, there wasn’t an NFL Owner’s Meeting last year and that’s usually the only time the media gets access to Bucs ownership, but Glazer’s quotes about Licht then still hold true today.
Bucs GM Jason Licht, head coach Bruce Arians and Joe and Bryan Glazer – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“One thing we do know in the NFL, too much instability doesn’t lead to success,” Glazer said in an exclusive with PewterReport.com in the courtyard outside of the Arizona Biltmore in 2019. “And we have had our share of instability over the last several years. And with Jason – obviously Jason is not happy with what our record has been the last few years – but when you look at our team and you look at our drafts, there have been positives. We have had a lot of players we drafted, re-sign, and we have a good nucleus of players. So at the end of the day we felt the consistency in that was important and will ultimately lead to success.
“He has put together a good personnel staff, he is good at articulating to everybody of what we are trying to accomplish,” Glazer said of Licht. “He has good perspective when it comes to the team. And I think the key has been working with the head coach. I think he has had excellent ability to work with our coaching staffs – it is partnership ultimately – and if those two people aren’t on the same page working well together than it is always flawed. So he is also a good people person.”
And over the years Licht has become a great general manager.
So good in fact that, Licht should be named the NFL Executive of the Year this year after the team’s 11-5 record.
Just one year after making the pivotal move of firing Koetter and bringing Arians out of retirement to take over as head coach, Licht and Arians were able to lure six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, the top free agent on the market, to Tampa Bay in March and then trade for another future Hall of Famer, tight end Rob Gronkowski, who wanted to reunite with Brady once again.
The powerhouse offense that Licht built through the draft with the likes of wide receivers Evans and Chris Godwin, along with offensive linemen Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa, running back Ronald Jones II and tight end O.J. Howard came to life under Arians in 2019. But too many penalties and too many turnovers from Winston, who threw a league-high 30 interceptions, including an NFL-record seven pick-sixes, produced a 7-9 finish in Arians’ first year in Tampa Bay.
Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
In a bold move, Licht and the Bucs wisely let Winston go in free agency where he would sign with New Orleans as the team’s third-string quarterback, and be replaced in Tampa Bay by Brady, who could still sling the ball at age 42, but do so more carefully. Cutting down the self-inflicted wounds was the mantra of the 2020 season, and that’s exactly what happened with Brady in Arians’ second year.
But Licht wasn’t done. He used the franchise tag on Shaquil Barrett, whom he signed to a one-year, $4 million deal in 2019, which was the catalyst to a 19.5-sack season to lead the NFL. Licht also re-signed Jason Pierre-Paul, who would lead the team with 9.5 sacks in 2020, and wisely let Carl Nassib head to Las Vegas in free agency where he’s been a bust.
Licht also brought back defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, signed the best kicker in franchise history in Ryan Succop, and drafted two immediate starters in right tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. Adding veterans LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette have bolstered the running back position, and signing valuable veteran cornerback Ross Cockrell and wide receiver Antonio Brown during the season were wise, savvy moves that aided the team on its quest for the playoffs.
Since 2017, Licht’s personnel mistakes have been few and far between. He’s learned from those mistakes and made less as a result. Fewer personnel misses and more hits from Licht have certainly played a huge role in building this playoff-caliber roster and helping the Bucs once again return to the postseason.
FAB 2. These Licht Moves Have Been The Right Moves
In Fab 1 I talked about some of the mistakes that Jason Licht has made since taking over as the Buccaneers general manager in 2014 and how he was able to quickly move on from them. Learning from those mistakes has played an instrumental role in Licht rapidly becoming a top-notch NFL G.M. and fielding a playoff-bound roster.
Now it’s time to recognize a dozen of Licht’s biggest and most successful personnel moves over his seven-year reign atop the organization in Tampa Bay. Here they are in chronological order.
Bucs GM Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
In one of Licht’s most underrated moves, he kept Tampa Bay’s director of football administration Mike Greenberg on from the Mark Dominik regime in 2014. Greenberg, who serves as Licht’s right-hand man, chief contract negotiator and the team’s capologist, has done an amazing job of keeping the Bucs out of salary cap purgatory and greatly reduced the team