OPINION: Lovie Smith’s Firing Wasn’t Totally Unjustified

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In case you missed it, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith was fired on Wednesday night after going 8-24 in his two years with the team. A 2-14 record in his first year gave the Buccaneers the first overall pick in the draft, which they used to select Florida State quarterback/extreme crab enthusiast Jameis Winston, who went on to overcome some rookie year growing pains but ultimately showcased the talent necessary to be a franchise QB en route to a 6-10 finish for the team.

On Thursday in a press conference that Smith did not attend, general manager Jason Licht explained the process, stating that “When you have eight wins, and three home wins, in two years, you’ve been patient enough.” According to Licht, he called Smith on Wednesday night to schedule a meeting with ownership to inform Smith of the decision, but when Licht indicated that the meeting “wasn’t a good meeting”, Smith contacted Joel Glazer, the head of the Glazer family that makes up the owners. From there, Smith deduced that the meeting was to fire him and, not wanting to waste any time, accepted his dismissal over the phone.

The decision was met with considerable controversy, with many fans, players, coaches, and analysts feeling that Smith had made some very good strides in his second year and that changing the head coach so soon for a promising young franchise QB could have a negative impact on his growth. Additionally, having three different head coaches in a span of five years reflects poorly on the franchise as a whole.

Perhaps the most poignant reactions, though, came from several players on the Buccaneers, who tweeted out their surprise and disapproval of the decision:

Star linebacker LaVonte David had the two most notable reactions, but has since deleted the tweets after reportedly being advised by several assistant coaches to do so. Fear not, though, for God made the screenshot possible for a reason:

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The disappointment over this decision becomes even more inflammatory when you realize the likely (but not official) reason for firing Smith. According to several reports from NFL Insiders within the Tampa Bay organization, the Buccaneers were worried when multiple other teams asked about potentially interviewing offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter for head coaching vacancies. Koetter, who played an integral role in Winston’s successful first year in the NFL, was a valued commodity for the Glazer family and Licht. According to these rumors, in an effort to ensure that Koetter stays in Tampa Bay, they fired Smith so that they can promote Koetter to head coach. Licht even confirmed in the press conference that Koetter was a “serious candidate” for the head coaching job, and NFL’s own Ian Rapoport reported that Koetter is the “frontrunner” for the job. If you’re wondering, Koetter served for three seasons as the head coach at Boise State and then six seasons at Arizona State in the same position. His overall record as a head coach is 66-44, but was fired by Arizona State after two consecutive disappointing seasons.

Now, the feelings of rage over Smith’s firing is certainly justifiable. Personally, I wouldn’t have fired him this year. It was a marked improvement from the dismal 2014 season, and it’s almost always a bad idea to frequently change out head coaches when you’re trying to build a team around a young and impressionable quarterback.

But there are also some good reasons in support of firing Smith.

Smith took over at the start of the 2014 season and was given control over personnel decisions regarding the roster. Despite having QB Mike Glennon, who set several franchise rookie records the year before, Smith signed aging journeyman Josh McCown and immediately named him the starter without even allowing Glennon a chance to prove himself in training camp. The Buccaneers started 0-3 and never scored more than 17 points with McCown at the helm. Glennon became the starter the next week due to an injury that McCown had sustained, and the Buccaneers capped off a 27-24 win against the Steelers. Glennon then lost the next three games, two of which were overtime thrillers, despite solid play at quarterback. Smith then put McCown back in at quarterback once he was healthy and the Buccaneers only won one more game all season.

Apart from simply being stubborn on the quarterback position, Smith inherited a very talented roster. The offense featured two talented wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, and rookie TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins brought with him loads of potential as a receiving TE. And RB Doug Martin was coming off a season cut short by injury, but was still one of the more talented backs in the NFL. The offense seemed one good quarterback away from being very effective. But Smith’s handpicked offensive coordinator, Jeff Tedford, failed to do much of anything. The Buccaneers averaged 17 points per game and Martin, through 11 games, accrued only 38 more rushing yards than he had the previous season, when he played in only 6 games. Evans had a standout rookie year, but Jackson and Seferian-Jenkins were both sorely underutilized in the offense as well. Smith then fired Tedford in the ensuing offseason, making the way for Koetter.

On defense, Smith was getting a defensive line that featured DT Gerald McCoy and promising rookie DT Akeem Spence, as well as a great edge rusher in DE Michael Johnson. There were two outstanding linebackers in Mason Foster and the aforementioned LaVonte David, as well as a secondary that featured the likes of CBs Alterraun Verner, Mike Jenkins, and Johnthan Banks and star safety Dashon Goldson. Were there a few holes on defense? Of course. Very few defenses are without positional holes. But was this a unit that was starved for talent? Absolutely not. Yet, the Buccaneers’ defense ranked 25th in the NFL in total defense, under a head coach known for vaunted defenses.

And then there’s the general criticism of Smith that has always persisted: he’s a defensive coordinator masquerading as a head coach. Much like Rex Ryan or Jeff Fisher, Smith’s past teams have generally featured great defenses but massively underwhelming offenses. And in nine seasons as the head coach of the Chicago Bears, Smith only saw the playoffs three times, including a Super Bowl loss. In his final year with Chicago, Smith got the Bears off to a NFL best 7-1 start before finishing 10-6 and falling short of the playoffs. It seemed to be a downward trend for the defensive mastermind, and in a league where high-scoring offenses are becoming more and more common (only six NFL teams averaged under 20 points per game in 2015), perhaps a scheme that focuses almost solely on having a great defense can’t cut it anymore.

Maybe Lovie Smith is too old fashioned for the NFL, just like Ryan and Fisher.

That still doesn’t negate the fact that the Buccaneers made huge improvements this year. Smith’s gross mismanagement of the personnel in 2014 also doesn’t negate what he did in 2015. The Buccaneers’ offense ranked 5th in the NFL and their defense ranked 10th. Their win percentage improved by nearly 300% from 2014 to 2015 and featured Winston, a talented QB who could potentially lead this franchise for years to come. There’s not a truly good reason to have fired Smith this season.

But there are reasons. Fully legitimate reasons. And that’s why his firing isn’t totally unjustified.

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