TAMPA — The Arizona Cardinals enjoyed the third-best bounce-back season in the NFL last year, rebounding from a 5-11 last-place finish in the NFC West in 2012 to go 10-6 in 2013.
As the Cardinals director of player personnel last season, new Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht was one of the architects of that rally. And he believes the Bucs are primed for a similar revival in 2014.
“That's actually one of the first things that popped into my head when the interview process started here,'' Licht said when asked if the Bucs team he joined and the Cardinals team he left behind were similar.
“(Both) have a strong defense and a lot of good players on that side of the ball, but the questions people have are on offense. We do need to put the right people in place there with some complementary players, but I really do see a lot of similarities.''
In at least one area, the two teams are not just similar, they're almost identical. Like the 2012 Cardinals, who ranked last in the 32-team league in total offense and 31st in points scored, the Bucs finished 4-12 in 2013 after ranking 32nd in total offense and 30th in points scored.
The similarities are not quite so obvious on defense. Arizona ranked 12th overall in total yards allowed and 17th in points allowed in 2012, compared to 17th and 21st, respectively, for the Bucs in 2013.
But Licht believes the Bucs are on the brink of breaking out on that side of the ball.
“We have a lot of core players on this team that I am very excited about — (defensive tackle) Gerald McCoy, (linebacker) Lavonte David, (cornerback) Darrelle Revis and (safety) Dashon Goldson, just to name a few,'' Licht said. “I don't think we're far away.''
Apparently the Cardinals weren't very far away, either.
After the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, who improved by nine and six victories, respectively, from 2012 to 2013, no team improved its victory total more than the Cardinals at five.
And it's not like the Cardinals rallied against a lineup of weak opponents. Though they benefitted from playing a last-place schedule, they were part of a division that sent two teams, including the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks, to the playoffs and was considered one of the toughest in the league.
The Bucs will find themselves in a similar situation in 2014 in the NFC South, which boasted two playoff teams in the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints in 2013 and has another rebound candidate in the Atlanta Falcons.
In fact, he Falcons might be the NFC South team most poised for a rebound in 2014, with no change in head coaches or systems to deal with and an established quarterback in Matt Ryan.
The Bucs have not only changed coaches, naming Lovie Smith as the successor to Greg Schiano, but are unsure of their plans at quarterback, where 2013 rookie Mike Glennon's status as the starter has yet to be determined.
But the Bucs have a positive energy about them, Licht said, that makes him believe they will adjust quickly to and overcome any scheme and personnel changes they make this offseason.
“It really is amazing,'' Licht said. “Anyone in this position is going to think everything is amazing the first day they come in here, but it truly was. Everybody is just so positive, so excited.
“The coaching staff is amazing and Lovie's track record speaks for itself. I've never met a player in my 19-plus years of doing this that has played for Lovie that hasn't said great things about him. That's the synergy that's in the air here, and so I really do have a strong belief that (the Bucs) are going to have a successful season and it starts with the optimism that we have here.''
It's not just optimism that Licht senses in the air at One Buc Place. He also senses a strong sense of urgency to win now coming from the Bucs owners, the Glazer family.
“All owners are going to say they want to win, but I just knew right away (when I started the interview process) that they meant it,'' Licht said. “They have a bad taste in their mouths right now about the drought Tampa Bay has had and they want to win more than anything.''