TAMPA — It can happen again.
Long-suffering Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans wondering when better days will arrive can look toward recent NFL history for inspiration.
Two of the most impressive turnaround seasons in league annals have occurred in the past few years as the Chiefs and Colts overhauled their front office and coaching staff, with dramatic results. Kansas City and Indianapolis just met in a wild opening-round AFC playoff matchup that should give Tampa Bay supporters reason to believe.
The 2013 Chiefs matched the improvement of the 2012 Colts by vaulting from a 2-14 record to an 11-5 mark behind new leaders at coach, general manager and quarterback.
“I thought the Colts did a very nice job of taking a team that hadn’t been doing well and had a big quarterback change, personnel change, new coach, new GM and they turned it around,’’ Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “We were able to do that this year.’’
While the selection of quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft triggered the turnaround in Indianapolis under coach Chuck Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson, Kansas City’s startling 9-0 getaway this year came with veteran Alex Smith — acquired in a February trade with the 49ers — under center.
A year after the Chiefs tossed only eight touchdown passes all season, Smith justified the organization’s faith by throwing for 23 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. A roster stocked with six Pro Bowl players from the 2-14 club blossomed under a new coaching staff and new GM John Dorsey’s direction.
Now the Bucs have a new regime in place in hopes that a 4-12 club that has gone six years without a playoff berth can shock the NFL in 2014.
“I don’t think any franchise in this league is that far away from a big turnaround, with the Chiefs being a prime example,’’ Fox analyst and former Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “Every year, there are five new clubs in the playoff field while some fall off, like Washington, Houston and Atlanta this year. Within that context, there’s no question the talent level of the Buccaneers is there.’’
While Tampa Bay closes in on a GM to replace Mark Dominik, new Bucs coach Lovie Smith expects an immediate turnaround.
“When you’re off for a year, you get a chance to watch a lot of football games,’’ Smith said Monday at his introductory news conference. “I really like the foundation that’s in place right here for us to make a quick climb.’’
Tampa Bay’s offense ranked last in the league, but there are significant pieces in place on defense, where under tackle Gerald McCoy and cornerback Darrelle Revis made the Pro Bowl. Second-year outside linebacker Lavonte David turned in a spectacular season and joined McCoy as first-team All-Pro, and a young unit also boasts solid players in end Adrian Clayborn, middle linebacker Mason Foster and safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson.
Rookie defensive end William Gholston was impressive in December, and the Vikings could let veteran defensive end Jared Allen (11.5 sacks) test free agency.
Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier coached Allen in Minnesota, which could help Tampa Bay lure a four-time All-Pro who stands 12th on the NFL’s all-time list with 128.5 career sacks.
On offense, 2012 Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin (shoulder) is expected to be fully healthy for training camp. A torn hamstring sidelined Mike Williams, who should pair with Vincent Jackson to give Tampa Bay two solid wide receivers.
There is talent along an under-performing offensive line that bears much of the responsibility for an attack that plunged from ninth to 32nd.
The key issue for the next administration is deciding who will be under center.
After Josh Freeman was released, rookie Mike Glennon went 4-9. The third-round pick out of North Carolina State threw 19 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions, but his production dropped off markedly in December, surrounded by a flurry of injuries.
“For me, the litmus test for a rookie quarterback is, does the game seem too big for them?’’ said Billick, who worked Tampa Bay’s final two games for Fox. “For Mike Glennon, it is not. I think the tools are there. He’s a little long-legged, but he can move well enough.
“Yes, the Bucs need to augment certain areas. Their safeties are solid — if they don’t get fined out of the league. Revis will come back strong and healthy, but the Bucs clearly need an edge rusher. You’d have to say Tampa Bay has been through a lot. When a guy you deem as your franchise quarterback (Freeman) goes south, that’s devastating. That in itself can set a franchise back for years.’’
The 2014 Bucs will try to emerge from a deep hole.
Tampa Bay has been relegated to the NFC South basement in six of the past 10 seasons, including the past three. The Bucs haven’t won a postseason game since routing the Raiders in the Super Bowl, and continuity at the top remains an issue: Smith is Tampa Bay’s fourth head coach since 2008.
Still, history suggests the Bucs can soon be the talk of the NFL.
“Nowadays, you can improve quickly,’’ Smith said. “We’re excited about putting more pieces together with this group, and then we’re going to take off.’’