Why bring Smith, the stoutest branch of the great Tony Dungy/Jon Gruden Bucs coaching tree, back home to Tampa Bay and only give him two years? Why wasn't an improvement from 2-14 to 6-10 good enough to save his job, especially in a year when they drafted a quarterback No. 1 overall?
If 6-10 wasn't good enough for Smith to keep his job, why on Earth did they wait three days to fire him, in a season when most teams didn't even wait for Black Monday to open up their spot on the coaching carousel? Most nonsensical of all, why would they announce it via an official team site post at 10:30 p.m. ET?
Buccaneers players were clearly just as shocked as fans. All-Pro linebacker Lavonte David took to Twitter to vent his frustrations about the incessant coaching churn he's had to deal with (David later deleted the Tweets):
David certainly wasn't the only one close to the Bucs sick of the constant direction-changing. Jenna Laine of SportsTalk 1040 The Team noted she's been covering the team only since 2007, yet has seen three general managers and (soon) five head coaches.
Sure, Smith went just 8-24 in two seasons. But after the disastrous, embarrassing failures of first-time head coaches Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano, wasn't Smith's tempered, steady approach exactly the stability the organization needed? And, after all that, the 6-10 the Bucs finished one game behind the New Orleans Saints, two games behind the Atlanta Falcons and were in the thick of the playoff hunt until deep into December.
Best of all, No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston made general manager Jason Licht look smart for betting the franchise on a quarterback prospect with non-trivial on-field question marks and grave off-field concerns. Winston, a rejuvenated Doug Martin and a work-in-progress offensive line allowed the Bucs to improve from 29th in scoring offense to 20th.
So, again—why fire Smith, and why fire him now?
The answer to the first question starts with David, or at least his unit. Despite boasting Pro Bowl-caliber talents at every level of the defense (David, tackle Gerald McCoy, cornerback Alterraun Verner), Smith's defense allowed more points per game in 2015 (26.1) than in 2014 (25.6). That 2014 mark was already worse than Greg Schiano's 2013 unit (24.3).
Smith, who built outstanding defenses as a linebackers coach in Tampa Bay, defensive coordinator in St. Louis and head coach in Chicago, seems to have no idea how to fix his deteriorating unit. Worse, the three stars anchoring his team (McCoy, David, Verner) played, to differing degrees, well below their usual standard this year.
Smith has used extensive window dressing and pre-snap shifts to disguise or hybridize his classic Tampa 2 base, but he just hasn't been able to get the best out of his players or put them in a position to excel. That's a fatal flaw with today's raw, athletic, hyper-specialized NFL talent.
The bizarre timing gives us a strong hint. Plugged-in Bucs insiders like ESPN's Mark Dominik—Licht's immediate predecessor in Tampa Bay—pointed strongly toward a promotion of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter:
With Lovie Smith fired I would expect Dirk Koetter to be named head coach within the week. They still will interview a few other candidates.— Mark Dominik (@MarkdominikESPN) January 7, 2016
If it were going to be an in-house promotion, what's up with the mid-week, late-night, blog-post firing? FoxSports.com's Alex Marvez reported on Jan. 4 that the Philadelphia Eagles were looking at bringing in Koetter for an interview.
Switching out offensive coordinators after a rookie quarterback's first season—especially when it was a promising, but far from flawless, season—is a recipe for disaster. Just ask quarterbacks like Sam Bradford about having to learn and relearn new offenses every season on top of all the other pressure a young quarterback faces.
If the Bucs were convinced they were going to lose Koetter if they didn't offer him a promotion, suddenly everything makes a lot more sense. Koetter did an excellent job bringing along both the passing game and running game; if the choice is letting him continue to mentor and mold the Bucs' young franchise quarterback or letting Lovie Smith hire an offensive coordinator...well, it's an easy choice.
Smith's track record in identifying offensive architects is abysmal: He's worked with six in 11 seasons as a head coach. Letting Koetter walk and leaving Jameis to twist in the wind could derail Winston's career—and set the franchise back years. Whether that's the motivation or not, it looks like Koetter will have a well-deserved inside track on continuing what he started in Tampa Bay.
But he won't be the only candidate the Bucs interview, as Dominik himself said, and there are plenty of other great offensive minds who would love to get their hands on a brilliantly talented young quarterback already surrounded by a full complement of weapons.
CBS Sports Jason LaCanfora quickly connected a few dots to draw out a great potential fit:
If I'm the Bucs I'm reaching out to Todd Haley quickly. Worked with their GM in Arizona. QB whispered. Would be great with Jameis— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) January 7, 2016
New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels got burned in his first head-coaching experience, but he's ready to try again, and an offensive mind with his pedigree would be a perfect fit.
ESPN's John Clayton reported McDaniels is interested in the Tennessee Titans job; if he's eager to coach Marcus Mariota, why wouldn't he want to coach the only player taken ahead of him? For that matter, deposed Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt has a longstanding reputation as a quarterback guru; he barely got to say hi to Mariota before he was whacked.
As frustrating as it may be for defensive veterans like David, Smith's firing is proof the organization is ready to push all-in on Winston and truly build its franchise around him.
It's just an unfortunate side effect that one of the NFL's most well-regarded coaches, in the wake of one of his better coaching jobs, won't get to see it through.