Upon being hired to replace Greg Schiano in January of 2014, Tampa Bay’s new head coach Lovie Smith said he wanted to make the Buccaneers relevant again.
He did for a few minutes.
Outside of the season-openers in 2014 and ’15, it took Smith 26 games to get the Bucs to a point where they could have a winning record.
Twenty-six games into Smith’s tenure and Tampa Bay was finally .500 with a 6-6 record at one point during the 2015 season, Bucs fans.
You know the rest.
A 25-12 loss at Indianapolis (7-8) followed by a 23-20 win against Atlanta (8-7) got Tampa Bay back to .500 again, but then three straight losses to teams with losing records assured the Bucs of their fourth losing season in as many years.
A 24-17 loss to New Orleans (6-9).
A 31-23 loss to St. Louis (6-9).
A 26-21 loss to Chicago (6-9).
Did you know that there are only two head coaches in Tampa Bay history that have never had a winning record at any point in the Bucs careers – even just starting out a season 1-0 by winning the opener? Those two coaches are Smith and Leeman Bennett. That’s a damning statistic.
If Tampa Bay loses at Carolina to the 14-1 Panthers next week as expected, the Bucs will end the season losing five of their last six games, including four straight. How is that acceptable to the Glazers and a sign that this team is going in the right direction?
The Smith era has not gone according to plan and the Bucs are now back to being irrelevant following two embarrassing home losses to beatable teams like New Orleans and Chicago. Another top 10 draft pick will be their consolation prize.
The Glazers have to be displeased and disappointed, especially after forking over $5 million per year to big-name coach like Smith. If they’re not, something’s wrong.
Schiano was fired after two years with an 11-21 record with a less-talented team, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
The best record Smith can finish his two years in Tampa Bay with is 9-23, but 8-24 is more likely with a loss at Carolina next week. I thought Smith was supposed to make the Bucs better, not worse?
Schiano won more games than Smith did in his first two years. So did Ray Perkins (9-22), Sam Wyche (10-22) and Raheem Morris (13-19) in Tampa Bay.
Smith was supposed to be a defensive guru, but the Bucs defense has gotten worse under his watch. The pass rush is spotty. The pass defense is terrible. The Bucs can’t get off the field on third down. Takeaways are far and few between – especially in the last four games where Tampa Bay has produced just one.
Smith’s defense has allowed an average of 25 points per game over the last five games. That’s not winning football, folks.
Entering Sunday’s game against a mediocre Chicago offense that was without wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, the Bears’ best player, at least the Bucs run defense was stout, right? Nope. Tampa Bay’s front seven was gashed for 174 yards and a touchdown on 39 carries (4.5 avg.).
So what can Smith’s defense hang its hat on heading into 2016? Absolutely nothing.
The Bucs defense was actually showing some improvement at the end of the 2014 season, but Smith decided to strip Leslie Frazier of the defensive play-calling duties and take on that responsibility this year. That move certainly hasn’t paid off.
Several of Smith’s handpicked players over the past two years, such as defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Henry Melton and defensive backs Major Wright, Tim Jennings and Mike Jenkins, haven’t panned out. Highly touted safety Bradley McDougald never really developed into a consistent playmaker this year and the play at the safety positions has been below average.
Once-promising cornerback Johnthan Banks has regressed. Former Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner has been demoted to the role of nickel back. The Bucs have started six different players at cornerback this year and only seem moderately happy with one of them – Sterling Moore, who isn’t a starter on most teams in the NFL.
Yes, some of the woes in Tampa Bay’s secondary are related to a lack of talent, but some of the problem is poor coaching where Gil Byrd (cornerbacks), Larry Marmie (nickel cornerbacks) and Mikal Smith (safeties), Lovie’s son, are far from elite, according to an NFL source familiar with the Bucs.
The Bucs will spend a couple of draft picks on the cornerback and safety positions, but can the existing coaches actually develop the new talent? Smith’s secondary coaches are certainly not to be confused with former Tampa Bay defensive backs coaches Herman Edwards, Mike Tomlin, Raheem Morris and Jimmy Lake.
Smith came to Tampa Bay with the reputation for his defenses taking the ball away, but the numbers suggest that the Buccaneers defense was actually better under Schiano in that regards.
In two years under Schiano, Tampa Bay’s defense produced 148 passes broken up, 39 interceptions, 30 forced fumbles, 18 fumble recoveries, six defensive touchdowns, five blocked kicks and one safety. In two years under Smith, the Bucs have produced 125 pass breakups, 25 interceptions, 35 forced fumbles, 21 fumble recoveries, six defensive touchdowns and three blocks.
Schiano’s defense in Tampa Bay generated 23 more pass breakups, 14 more interceptions, two more blocked kicks, one more safety and just three less fumble recoveries than Smith’s defense has produced over the last 31 games. Where is the improvement?
With one game left in the 2015 season, the Bucs have three less interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery than they did a year ago. Yet Smith sees progress? Why, because the Bucs have four more wins than they did a year ago?
If an NFL team makes a run at Koetter to be its head coach in the offseason the Glazers must do the wise and responsible thing and fire Smith and promote Koetter. Who is more important to this team in 2016 and beyond – Smith or Koetter?
The answer is simple. It’s Koetter because establishing continuity on the offensive side of the ball is paramount for Winston’s development. The Bucs have won this season in spite of Smith, not because of him.
Ever the optimist, Smith crowed last week about how he’s a big believer in momentum carrying over from one season into the next, expecting his team to finish the season on a 2-0 run with wins against the Bears and the Panthers.
Does that hold true about bad momentum, too? I hope not.
For some bizarre reason Smith believes that the 2016 season had already begun this week (it hasn’t) with his team out of the playoff hunt. At least that’s what he said in his press conference.
Does Sunday’s loss to the Bears make the Bucs 0-1 in 2016? I hope not. Let’s keep that loss confined to 2015’s disappointing season.
What I am a big believer in is the fact that teams take on the identity of their head coach. In his press conferences and on the sidelines, Smith comes across as someone who is blasé and complacent, and his football team has played that way far too often this year.
The last two home games – losses to New Orleans and Chicago – are a great example.
Three weeks ago the Saints possessed the ball for 37:14 – a nearly 15-minute time of possession advantage. On Sunday the Bears controlled the ball for 37:03. Again, nearly 15 more minutes than the Bucs.
New Orleans’ Sean Payton and Chicago’s Adam Gase – two offensive coaches that have gotten the better of Smith’s defense – played keep away from Tampa Bay’s defense literally and figuratively. The Bucs defense was complacent and couldn’t get a takeaway and couldn’t get the Saints and Bears offenses off the field.
Actually, Tampa Bay did record a takeaway on Sunday when defensive tackle Gerald McCoy tipped a pass that was intercepted by defensive end Will Gholston. Yet that play was negated due to an untimely facemask penalty on Verner.
That play is a perfect microcosm of the Bucs’ 2015 season. A good play wiped out by a stupid, undisciplined penalty.
“It was a screen, I was able to get some pressure, tip the ball and Will Gholston made a great play,” McCoy said. “It’s kind of what we been all year. We shoot ourselves in the foot with penalties.”
Smith has had no answer for penalties this season as Tampa Bay has amassed 138 infractions, which is a franchise record, for 1,130 yards. The Bucs only had four penalties for 47 yards on Sunday, but Verner’s came at the worst time and killed momentum in the second quarter.
“We had momentum early – that penalty when we got the interception really put us on our heels and we never really recovered after that,” Smith said. “I have to give them credit. They controlled the ball. They had 15 or so more minutes [of possession]. It’s going to be tough to win when you play ball like that.”
The fact that Smith admitted that the Bucs never really recovered from that momentum-killing penalty in the second quarter speaks to the lack of mental toughness and determination from Smith’s defense. Why couldn’t Tampa Bay’s defense overcome it and make a play before halftime or in the second half?
After the game, Smith was at a total loss to explain how his defense had not recorded a takeaway in the last three games.
“We got one [takeaway] and a penalty stopped us, but on record right now we don’t have enough,” Smith said. “No, I don’t know the answer why. It’s more than just putting an emphasis on it. It’s not like we had a lot of opportunities to intercept the ball. They just haven’t come for whatever reason. It’s something we’ll have to continue to try to figure out.”
I don’t have the confidence that Smith will figure it out, solve the Bucs’ penalty problems, and that one offseason of personnel moves will make a significant difference on defense. Some fans will argue that firing another head coach after just two seasons doesn’t allow for continuity in Tampa Bay, and will point to teams like Jacksonville, Oakland and Cleveland as losing franchises with turnstiles for their head coaches.
But what if Smith isn’t the right coach to take this Bucs team to the next level? What if next year is wasted on one more chance that only results in yet another losing season?
Smith wants you to believe that there is progress in Tampa Bay because he wants to keep his job. That’s understandable.
But a closer look at the lack of progress on defense, the suspect defensive play-calling, Smith’s game day management, which has been mediocre at best, and the fact that he has presided over the most undisciplined team in Bucs history when it comes to penalties should give the Glazers some serious pause about letting him continue as the team’s head coach.
Sources within One Buccaneer Place say the Glazers will be expecting a 10-win season and a playoff berth in 2016. After five straight losing seasons they are right to have those kinds of expectations, but that might be a tall order, especially if Smith is still the head coach.
As of right now here’s a list of Tampa Bay’s 2016 opponents:
Smith is going to get fired. It likely won’t be following the 2015 season finale at Carolina – even though it should.
Yet all the Glazers are doing is delaying the inevitable and wasting another season that could very well end in a 6-10 or 7-9 season with Smith at the helm given the more daunting schedule if they don’t look at the evidence.
Because they have a special player in their franchise quarterback the Buccaneers will become relevant again. It just won’t be until Tampa Bay has a new head coach and a much better defense.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com