I would not have fired Lovie Smith on Wednesday. I would have been wrong.
I believed Lovie Smith deserved one more year to pull the Bucs from the underbelly of the NFL. He inherited a team with bare cupboards. Yes, he had Gerald McCoy, Vincent Jackson, Lavonte David and Darrelle Revis, but baseline talent was about as bad it got in the NFL.
This problem can be traced back to Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen. Nearly a decade of awful drafting left the once mighty Bucs defense old and without proper successors. Gruden’s penchant for recruiting veteran quarterbacks while paying lip service to the draft ensured little hope for the future upon his dismissal.
Like Lovie Smith, former Bucs GM Mark Dominik was dealt a futile hand. He had a underqualified coach in Raheem Morris and no young talent to speak of. He was going to have to rebuild the franchise from scratch.
Like Smith, Dominik’s shortcomings kept the Bucs mired in mediocrity. Though both of the head coaches he worked with tanked, it was the implosion of Josh Freeman and the poor draft picks in the second and third rounds that sunk Dominik.
Lovie Smith’s arrival in Tampa Bay was meant to restore the franchise’s tarnished prestige. It was a tall order. Aside from a handful of superstars, the roster resembled old Swiss cheese. Smith would have to make do with no franchise quarterback, no viable edge rushers, two safeties that can’t cover, a hollow offensive line and next to no offensive playmakers.
There’s no question Lovie Smith had his work cut out for him, but that’s why he was so well compensated and given such latitude to pick his players. He had years of success in Chicago, a team he turned around in less than two years. With a decade of experience, he should have been able to turn the franchise around much faster than he was.
Circumstances paid Smith few favors once he was in Tampa Bay. Offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford fell ill before the 2014 season even started, leaving the Bucs with Marcus Arroyo to call its offensive plays though he had no pro experience.
As rough as Lovie had it coming into Tampa Bay, he only made it worse for himself. Smith and general manager Jason Licht’s 2014 free agent bonanza is well documented and deeply lamented. Smith needed players that would fit his scheme, but apart from Clinton McDonald, every signing failed to live up to expectations.
Good coaches adjust to the talent available (see: Belichick, Bill and Harbaugh, Jim). Lovie Smith refused. He jettisoned Darrelle Revis for Alterraun Verner and Mike Jenkins. Verner was a Pro Bowl player in Tennessee. In Tampa Bay he became a question mark.
What truly damned Lovie Smith was the regression of his defense in 2015. The Bucs went from allowing 25.6 points per game in 2014 to 26.1 points per game this year. They went from 25 turnovers in 2014 to 23 this year. Third down percentage declined from 44 percent to 46 percent.
Make no mistake; this was Lovie Smith’s defense. He picked the free agents to fill the gaps, he dogmatically adhered to his scheme, and if Scott Reynold’s Fab 5 column today is any indication, his conservative demeanor may have contributed to some of the Bucs weak starts in games.
Every head coach and executive is dealt some bad cards, and it takes time to shuffle the deck before the right hand comes around. Lovie Smith may have been able to win in 2016, but he proved this year that he was unlikely to make the Bucs better than cards in his hand.