Commentary | With LeBron gone, Tampa Bay Buccaneers have opportunity to become the state's top pro franchise

adell@bradenton.comJuly 16, 2014 

LeBron James' move to Cleveland created a void in Florida. The Miami Heat have been reduced to a curiosity, and that leaves the state without a professional sports team residents here and beyond want to embrace.

But there is one waiting in the wings: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It's there for the taking.

You can start with new head coach Lovie Smith. He has the name and the game, and his resumé is decorated with hope.

Consider the competition (among the Big Three sports of football, baseball and basketball):

• Rays -- Saddled with choking budget constraints, the team is considering trading ace David Price. To put this in perspective, would the Miami Dolphins have traded Dan Marino?

• Miami Marlins -- They lead MLB in fire sales and are riding a perpetual roller coaster that is often downward bound.

• Jacksonville Jaguars -- They have had four head coaches since 2011 and the league's lowest scoring offense last season. Oh, there is hope if you believe in Blake Bortles, but this franchise has been a tough place for young quarterbacks.

• Dolphins -- Miami has one winning season in the past eight years and made the playoffs once since 2001. The biggest names are still Marino, Don Shula, Larry Csonka and Mark Duper, which says all you need to know.

• Orlando Magic -- Shaq, Penny, Tracy and Dwight took their talents elsewhere.

If only because of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, the Bucs won't dump players when they become of age to make their biggest contributions.

There also is a genuine desire among those in charge to have the Bucs become an elite franchise, and Smith is one of those coaches whose presence breeds optimism.

They are not there yet and have their flaws (particularly on the offensive line), but they're on their Lovie way.

They don't have a superstar who causes church bells to ring.

The closest thing is Gerald McCoy, but he plays defensive tackle, and there are limits to how much he can ignite the fan base, no offense to Warren Sapp.

Nearly all NFL superstars play offense -- guys like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, who can attract supporters regardless of their zip code.

The Bucs don't have that right now. Newly acquired Josh McCown is a nice quarterback who could be better, but he has to erase more than a decade of question marks.

Dashon Goldson is the most overpaid safety in the NFL, and the other safety, Mark Barron, hasn't shown he was worth the seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft.

Coming off an injury and Smith's desire to share the rushing load, running back Doug Martin won't rise into superstardom status.

The closest thing the Bucs have to a superstar on offense is receiver Vincent Jackson, and Father Time is at his heels.

But the beauty of this is that the Bucs have no reason to panic. At the moment, no pro franchise in the state appears capable of rising above the crowd.

There are only two pro coaches/managers in the state whom every voter would likely recognize, and that would be Lovie Smith and Rays skipper Joe Maddon.

Maddon is burdened with a budget that has no wings, and football scores higher on the popularity scale. Smith has been a given a vehicle that can take him to his dreams without concern for gas money.

The consensus among prognosticators is the Bucs will be 8-8 next season.

Lovie Smith could've instantly made his team the most relevant pro franchise in the state if he had drafted Johnny Manziel, but perhaps thought it would've been for the wrong reasons.

Time will tell whether that move was correct.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports.

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