SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
I apologize for the short length of this week’s SR’s Fab 5 column. I know you have come to expect a lot of in-depth analysis from this weekly Friday column, which typically ranges between 5,000-8,000 words. However, I have succumbed to a wicked case of bronchitis and walking pneumonia that has made me bedridden most of this week. Since coming down with this affliction on Monday I have not been to One Buccaneer Place for any interviews, nor have I had the energy to delve into potential SR’s Fab 5 topics that would require a substantial amount of research.
I haven’t been this sick in years, but with the Bucs facing their biggest game in recent memory in Dallas on Sunday Night Football, I didn’t want to let you down without an SR’s Fab 5 this week.
FAB 1. WHAT IF SMITH LEAVES TAMPA BAY AFTER 2016?
Be careful what you wish for, Bucs fans, as success often comes with a price.
What if Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith were to leave Tampa Bay after just one season to return to head coaching duties in the NFL? That’s looking more and more like a possibility with each victory and each dominating performance by Tampa Bay’s once-awful defense.
Smith’s name is now red hot in NFL circles after being barely lukewarm as the Bucs defense was quite porous in the first half of the year after a dismal 3-5 start that saw the Bucs surrender 24 points or more to Atlanta (twice), Arizona, Denver and Oakland. Heck, I even speculated that Smith could be ousted at the end of the year in a previous SR’s Fab 5 column after a horrific showing by the Bucs defense against the Falcons on Thursday Night Football. But during the Bucs’ five-game winning streak, Smith’s defense has rebounded and is a major reason for the turnaround in Tampa Bay while holding four of its last five opponents to 17 points or less.
Smith is widely respected around the league after becoming Atlanta’s all-time winning head coach from 2008-14 when he amassed a 66-46 record (.589), leading the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his first five seasons. Back-to-back losing seasons in 2013-14 and a 1-4 record in the postseason led to Smith’s dismissal after the 2014 campaign, and led to the Bucs picking up Dirk Koetter as their offensive coordinator last year. But the Falcons posted a franchise-best 13-3 mark twice under Smith’s leadership, first in 2010 before losing to Green Bay in the NFC Divisional Game and again in 2012 before losing to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. That track record, combined with the job he’s done turning around the Bucs defense, has restored his image in NFL circles.
What led the Falcons to hire Smith in 2008 was the outstanding job he did as Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator from 2003-07 where he was paired with Koetter, the Jaguars offensive coordinator, who then became Smith’s play-caller in Atlanta from 2012-14. While the Los Angeles head-coaching job is currently vacant after Jeff Fisher’s firing this week, it’s the potential opening in Jacksonville after this season that should concern Tampa Bay fans.
Gus Bradley has had four years to turn the Jaguars around, but instead has a 14-47 record (.230), including a disappointing 2-11 mark in 2016. The Jaguars took a shot on Bradley, who has had no head coaching experience, but will be in the market for a seasoned leader once Bradley is fired after the end of the season.
Smith had previous success in Jacksonville and is likely to be at the top of the list, as Pro Football Weekly speculated this week.
“Sources have told us that Smith might believe the Jaguars job is his if he wants it, and that he has already begun reaching out to candidates to put a staff of assistants together,” reported Pro Football Weekly.
Because Tampa Bay’s assistant coaches are all under contract through at least 2017, the Bucs only risk losing three coaches at the most if he were to leave – Smith and any assistant that he would want to promote to the role of offensive or defensive coordinators. Linebackers coach Mark Duffner might be a candidate to join Smith and run the Jaguars defense in this possible scenario. He has previous defensive coordinator experience in college and for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2001-02.
Duffner coached with Smith before in Jacksonville from 2006-07, and obviously in Tampa Bay this year. Of course if Koetter wanted to promote Duffner to the role of defensive coordinator to replace Smith if he left the Bucs could block his departure.
Former Bucs defensive line coach Joe Cullen, who holds the same position in Baltimore and has worked for Smith before, could also be an option as defensive coordinator both in Jacksonville under Smith or in Tampa Bay as Smith’s possible replacement. Like Duffner, Cullen, who is a Rod Marinelli disciple, has previous play-calling experience, but just not at a pro level.
If Smith were to leave and poach a Bucs offensive assistant to become his offensive coordinator in Jacksonville, quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian and offensive line coach George Warhop could be potential candidates. Bajakian was the offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee before coming to Tampa Bay. Warhop is the Bucs’ run game coordinator and was the offensive coordinator for the London Monarchs in NFL Europe from 1991-92.
Offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Todd Monken, who coached alongside Smith in Jacksonville prior to the 2016 campaign in Tampa Bay, may be a candidate as his role with the Bucs does not include play-calling duties. Those are handled by Koetter and that might prevent Smith from luring Monken away from Tampa Bay to work with quarterback Blake Bortles in this potential scenario.
Of course Koetter would be furious with all of this speculation right now because it has nothing to do with the Dallas Cowboys game and is nothing but a distraction to the team. But he doesn’t need to think about any of this right now. That’s the job of general manager Jason Licht.
Aside from prepping for the 2017 NFL Draft and the looming East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl in January, Licht now has to be putting together short lists of all of these possible scenarios to give to Koetter when the time is right so that the Bucs can be prepared to hit the ground running for any coaching vacancies that may occur if Smith departs this offseason. That’s the price of success in the NFL.
Naturally, the best possible time for Smith’s potential departure would be in early February if the Bucs’ winning streak can continue all the way through December and January with Tampa Bay being a surprise Super Bowl team.
Don’t expect Smith to stay with the Bucs as a loyal defensive coordinator like Monte Kiffin did for two different head coaches from 1996-2008. Kiffin never really wanted to be a head coach and only wanted to leave Tampa Bay when his son, Lane, became the head coach at the University of Tennessee in 2009.
The 57-year old Smith, who is a native of Daytona Beach, Fla., has the desire to become a head coach again, and if Jacksonville comes calling, my guess is that he will leave Tampa Bay, especially with the personnel the Jaguars have assembled with defensive back Jalen Ramsey, defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler, and linebacker Myles Jack, in addition to free agent defensive tackle Malik Jackson, safety Tashaun Price and others. I think it would be a great fit and I would be happy for Smith.
Of course I would be even happier if Smitty somehow ended up staying in Tampa Bay past 2016 and continued to build on the foundation his defense has laid this season. Smith’s defense has become absolutely fun to watch and admire this season with the Buccaneers.