With just one game left in the 2015 season that will only matter in terms of 2016 Draft position, and with the uproar swirling around Lovie Smith, I thought now would be a good time to put my thoughts down and hopefully share and have a more nuanced discussion of the situation the Bucs and Lovie Smith specifically currently find themselves in.
What kind of job has Lovie Smith done, and does it qualify as worthy of being fired?
The defensive on-field results are bad this year. Duh. But why? Well, I think by now everyone pretty much realizes this roster just isn't that good. Much of that can be traced back to previous regimes, where years of poor drafting and FA choices left the roster Lovie inherited almost literally bereft of talent, save a few bright spots. That's not his fault, sure. Much of the talent that was here didn't quite fit the scheme Lovie wants to run, which is a base Cover 2 zone, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that either. Many were let go or traded, and other than some short-lived FA mistakes the roster does feel like it's trending in the right general direction, at least offensively. And the offense has seen the vast majority of the long-term rebuilding attention. Many of the defensive FA acquisitions do feel, in hindsight, like stop gaps until the rebuild can be turned towards the defense. It feels incomplete, and so far that's OK.
But I think if you really want to accurately look at the full coaching job Lovie has done in Tampa, you can't just look at the roster. Why? Because on-field results aren't just the product of talent, or lack of it, it's also the byproduct of the quality of coaching that talent receives. So the additional question we must ask is, "Has Lovie hired the right people to put the Bucs in the best chance to succeed?" To answer that question, you have to go back to Lovie's time in Chicago. Here's an excerpt of an interesting article written in September by CBS's Jason La Canfora:
Smith did not have control to put together his staff for much of his regime in Chicago, sources said. The front office -- and not Smith -- was behind the hiring of defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and special teams coach Dave Toub, two standouts from the Bears staff that reached the Super Bowl.
Smith assumed more power over time and fired Rivera, who went on to thrive as a coordinator and now as head coach of Carolina. Smith's decision [in Tampa] to take over Frazier's game-day duties reminded some of the falling out with Rivera. It also did not go unnoticed in coaching circles when esteemed defensive coach Rod Marinelli, one of Smith's closest friends, opted to stay in Dallas as coordinator rather than join Smith's staff in Tampa.
La Canfora continues to write of Lovie's Tampa staff:
Smith is the central figure in the organization, carrying substantial power including a crucial voice in hiring first-time general manager Jason Licht. Smith's quiet decision to usurp Frazier in the spring -- a former head coach with a ton of coordinating experience -- will only intensify the focus on Smith as the Bucs continue to try and rebuild.
The makeup of Smith's coaching staff has remained a significant topic of conversation among other organizations. The group lacked adequate NFL experience in the eyes of many a year ago and operated essentially without an offensive coordinator all season.
What can this tell us? Well, he still fielded elite defenses in Chicago even years after he fired Rivera, as late as 2012. What has Lovie done with the power he wanted and received from the Glazers when he was made Head Coach of the Bucs? While Tedford's unfortunate and unforeseen health concerns, through no one's fault, kept him from his duties as offensive coordinator, was he really a good hire in the first place? I think it's telling that Tedford never found another NFL job and earlier this month resigned as HC of a Canadian Football League team with a 7-12 record, with the apparent hopes of returning to the college ranks in some capacity. I think it's telling how other teams reportedly feel about this Bucs coaching staff that Lovie has put together. And while Dirk Koetter has definitely made mistakes this year, he overall has done a good job and he is definitely qualified to be an NFL OC and a significant upgrade over what the Bucs had offensively in Smith's first year. With the talent and coaching improvements this season the offense is clearly trending upwards.
So that leaves Lovie's defensive staff. Frazier is the defensive coordinator and his resume as a coordinator is pretty good, even if his role has been slashed by Lovie. What is the rest of the staff like? Well, Booger McFarland thinks the fact the Bucs have 3 defensive backs coaches - one for the boundary and field corners, one for the nickel corners, and one for the safeties, is not ordinary, nor a good idea. There is generally just one "Defensive Backs" coach. Booger goes on to note that with the Bucs' secondary, 'the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing', and there is ample film evidence of that this year (and last), with the lack of communication between the players causing a multitude of issues such as straight coverage busts, the lack of simple banjo calls against the Saints' rub routes, the corners playing off and giving free releases when they should be jamming, to the constant rotation of base coverages and the musical chairs at cornerback, searching for something, anything that might work. No one seemed to be on the same page and the secondary in general seemed to lack a plan despite nothing that they were being asked to execute was all that difficult or complicated.
Outside of Marmie, the collective NFL experience of the defensive staff, which includes two of Lovie's sons, isn't exactly encouraging, especially the secondary, and even Marmie's history suggests his career was over before being resurrected by Lovie in Tampa. Could some of the comments from other NFL teams La Canfora refers to have also been aimed at the defensive staff? I believe so. To be frank, I personally think this defensive staff is bad, but maybe not as bad as the roster. Compare/contrast it with the defensive staff the Denver Broncos have, whose defense Football Outsiders ranks as the best in the league, and their experience (yes, I know the talent disparity between the two teams).
He's running the defense he wants to run without the players needed to run it correctly and he knows it: Per his press conference today Lovie recognizes the talent deficiencies, and I'm sure some will view his statement as throwing the players under the bus considering he has final say over who makes the final roster. But his words aren't wrong. It's not a finished product. But that ignores the argument that this defense could very possibly be better if they were running a scheme that better fit the talent they actually have right now. My point is even with the talent issues, this defense still should have been better than they were. Look what Zimmer has done in Minnesota with a similar roster. There's no consistency, poor fundamentals, and little discipline in Tampa. There's simply no excuse for those kinds of issues after two years, and that's on Lovie. So, to answer the question - yes, you can make an argument that he could be justifiably fired right now. Part of the situation isn't his fault, but much of the dysfunction is his own doing, either directly or indirectly. Those that feel talent is a much bigger factor might feel differently.
Is firing Lovie Smith the right thing to do?
This is a more difficult question to answer and is more subjective, and my answer will be more stream of consciousness. Continuity for the sake of continuity is not the right thing to do. You don't keep a guy just to keep him. At the same time, even coaches can get better and learn from their mistakes. Firing him likely means losing Koetter and having a third offensive system in three years, threatening to derail or at least setback the offensive improvement. Not to mention the cost of his buyout and the salary of a new coach. This team is at least 2 years away from acquiring the talent it needs to run the system Lovie wants. That means it's probably just two years away from being a contender in the hands of someone else. There's a chance Lovie will recognize his mistakes and/or be pressured to change his staff. He gets the talent he needs and this team heads in the right direction. But what if he's too stubborn, and continues what he's been doing? Refuses to find better coaches? Every year is another year lost. And of course, if you choose to fire him, who can you reasonably get that's better? What if you whiff on your first choice and end up with your 3rd or 4th choice? These are all questions and scenarios the Glazers must consider. I personally have no issue with Lovie staying if he makes changes to his staff. If he can't or won't, I think he needs to go. And if he needs to go it's better to do it now than to wait. Even with everything Booger thinks "Has Lovie made mistakes? Yes. Has the roster been managed right? No. But to say the Bucs need a new head coach is crazy". I know some will think the real issue is just the talent. Fix that and everything will fall into place. How do you guys feel?
Will Lovie Smith be fired?
In short, no, because this team is in the middle of a rebuild. I think he gets one more year. The Bucs will likely face a much more difficult schedule next year. If the defense doesn't show significant improvement to at least average, along with improvements in discipline I think he's gone.