Gone are the days when NFL head coaches entered their first season with the license to develop a team over the course of a few years. The firing of Cleveland Browns head coach Rod Chudzinski marked the third consecutive season of a coach being fired after their first year with a team. Nothing is promised by desperate front offices. In 2011, Oakland fired Hue Jackson at the end of his first season after posting the franchise’s best record since 2002. The bar is at an all-time high for new hires. Last season, three coaches (Andy Reid, Mike McCoy, and Chip Kelly) took their teams to the postseason in their first year, while Chicago’s Marc Trestman and Arizona’s Bruce Arians missed a playoff berth by just one game.
Seven teams parted ways with their coach this offseason, and all seven new hires know that there are immense expectations to not only win, but to win immediately. We’ll be taking a look at a different first-year head coach each week, determining what they bring to the table, and just how well they will fit in with the current personnel.
Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
- Tulsa, 1983-1986 (Linebackers Coach)
- Wisconsin, 1987 (Linebackers Coach)
- Arizona State, 1988-1991 (Linebackers Coach)
- Kentucky, 1992 (Linebackers Coach)
- Tennessee, 1993-1994 (Defensive Backs Coach)
- Ohio State, 1995 (Defensive Backs Coach)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1996-2000 (Linebackers Coach)
- St. Louis Rams, 2001-2003 (Defensive Coordinator)
- Chicago Bears, 2004-2012 (Head Coach)
With the hiring of Lovie Smith as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, fans were finally awoken from the nightmare tenure of Greg Schiano. But personnel-wise, Smith enters Tampa Bay in a similar fashion to Schiano: a proven defensive coach hired to manage a squad of promising defensive talent and an utterly lackluster offensive unit. Smith set out to assuage any concerns about the offense by bringing in former Cal coach Jeff Tedford to serve as offensive coordinator.1 While Tedford and his quarterbacks certainly had success running a pro-style offense in the college ranks, his collegiate products rarely panned out in the climate of the NFL. Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller, and Aaron Rodgers all played under Tedford and were selected in the first round of the draft, but with the exception of the one stellar outlier, Tedford’s quarterbacks were seen as below-average NFL talents, and several were seen as the biggest draft busts in their respective franchise’s history.
Even though there were fewer concerns about the other side of the ball under Smith, the Buccaneers ended up with a more proven coach as the defensive coordinator. Like Smith, Leslie Frazier also coached under Tony Dungy, and he reached similar levels of success as a defensive coordinator before a rocky head coaching job. Since accepting the defensive coordinator position in Minnesota in 2007, Frazier’s defenses have allowed the second-fewest total rushing yards while leading the NFL in sacks and forcing the second-most fumbles. Joining Frazier as linebackers coach is Hardy Nickerson, the former All-Pro linebacker for the Buccaneers. Nickerson served as linebackers coach under Smith in Chicago, coaching a unit that produced two All-Pro players.2
Following the Schiano debacle, the Tampa Bay front office wanted someone who could erase the disastrous relationship between the players and the head coach, which is why Smith was the first choice for the Buccaneers. Perhaps the biggest positive that Smith brings to the table is the fact that players want to play for him. He has a fierce loyalty to his former players, and that loyalty cements his status as a player’s coach. Smith commands respect and will not allow players to forget the fundamentals of the game.3
The most obvious benefit to hiring Lovie Smith is the assurance that the defense will consistently rank in the top ten. After joining Chicago, Smith transformed the 22nd ranked defense in 2003 to a unit that ranked second in the league and allowed the fewest points just two years later. Smith was able to rely on an opportunistic defense that thrived on turnovers, even through the mediocrity of Rex Grossman and an early Jay Cutler on offense, securing three division championships in a six-year span. Though his offense was consistently ranked in the bottom ten, Smith was able to coach the Chicago offense to second-most points scored in the league in the 2006 season that ended in a Super Bowl appearance.
Though Lovie Smith was able to leave his tenure in Chicago with a winning record, he earned that record in perhaps the weakest divisional period in NFC North history. A winning record against the likes of Mike Tice, Dick Jauron, Brad Childress, Jim Schwartz, and Leslie Frazier is hardly as impressive of a feat as it first appears to be on paper. While Smith’s personality is certainly a far cry from Schiano’s, he is not exactly a breath of fresh air. Smith can be characterized in the same way that two out of the past three fired Tampa Bay coaches can be characterized: Defensive minded coach with an extremely unproductive offense. Furthermore, he is frequently criticized for his poor game management in Chicago, specifically his clock management and use of timeouts. He was also labelled stubborn for his refusal or inability to adjust in the middle of a game.
Smith has frequently made questionable personnel decisions that never managed to pan out, cutting several key contributors per year, trading away first-round draft picks, and seemingly choosing his starting quarterback by flipping a coin on a weekly basis. This was shown early after his hire by Tampa Bay when he made a move for perennial backup Josh McCown and declared him the starter over promising second-year player Mike Glennon. His questionable personnel management tendencies might even be exacerbated by a Buccaneers front office that has been accused of equally embarrassing incompetence. Smith only managed to win three playoff games in nine seasons with the Bears, despite homefield advantage in all three postseason runs.
Smiths’ questionable management of personnel and game operations certainly contributed to the almost perennial debacle that occurred on the offensive side of the ball in Chicago. In his nine years with the Bears, Chicago finished in the top 15 just once in offensive production, finishing in the bottom five in yards allowed four times, and ranking in the bottom ten every single season except for the Super Bowl year.4 Solid quarterback play was all but impossible with an offensive line that gave quarterbacks only slightly better protection than a turnstile would offer. Every indication is that these offensive woes rest on the shoulders of Lovie Smith. Chicago constantly fired and acquired new coordinators and assistant coaches, and it only took Marc Trestman, Chicago’s current head coach, one offseason to fix the offensive issues and transform the Bears into the second-highest scoring team in the league.
Tampa Bay has considerable talent on defense, with four players who have made an All-Pro team,5 but Lovie Smith’s tenure will end like Greg Schiano’s and Tony Dungy’s if he is unable to build a productive offense that can complement a sturdy defense. Smith chose to gamble on that front, hiring an offensive coordinator with no NFL experience. Scoring efficiency is especially vital in the NFC South, where offensive talents like Cam Newton, Julio Jones, Drew Brees, and Jimmy Graham will result in high-scoring divisional games. Lovie Smith will live or die by his gamble on Jeff Tedford.
Tedford was the winningest coach in Cal history, reaching a school-record seven straight bowl games. ↩
Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs ↩
Which might be the reason why safety Dashon Goldson hired a tackling coach this offseason. That or the fines. ↩
First team All-Pro: Dashon Goldson, Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David. Second team All-Pro: Alterraun Verner ↩