Don’t let the final score of Baltimore whooping Tampa Bay 48–17 fool you; it wasn’t nearly that close. The Ravens led 28–0 after one quarter. In the first 17 minutes, Joe Flacco had already thrown five touchdown passes. The 38–0 halftime deficit was the largest in NFL history for a home team. And this wasn’t long after a 56–10 shellacking against Atlanta a few weeks ago that saw Tampa go down 35–0 at the half and 56–0 after three quarters. Do they have a slaughter rule in football? New coach Lovie Smith just might get them to think about it.
Bucs fans rejoiced at the thought of Smith returning to his NFL roots in Tampa. That honeymoon has ended if you read the comments section in the local dailies online. Some are actually reminiscing about the Greg Schiano era. Considering how anxious they were for him to disappear from the scene last year—my how Smith has fallen. With a 1–5 record—the one win a last-second victory against Pittsburgh—Smith has lost almost all credibility.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Smith had a reputation as a defensive guru and a leader who would quickly turn this team around. The national media jumped onboard the Lovie-train—with Sports Illustrated gushing in its NFL preview issue— practically raising Smith to sainthood with these words: “Swashbuckling fans will adore new coach Lovie Smith’s D—especially when it sails this team into the playoffs.” Yes, SI picked Tampa to win the NFC South in Smith’s first year.
The Tampa 2 was back—so they thought. Or was the Tampa 2 actually an outdated defense run by a one-trick pony who so far has proven he has no answers?
He gained his reputation in Chicago where the Bears went 81–63 under his guidance. During his nine years there, the team made the playoffs three times, including the Super Bowl in the 2006 season. On face value you might be impressed, but if you look a little deeper, you will see that Smith was blessed with a lot of good fortune in Chicago.
When he took over the team, he inherited Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Peanut Tillman on defense. He also ended up with Ron Rivera as his defensive coordinator—though not by choice. He wanted Rod Marinelli, but Marinelli was under contract at the time. Smith’s next choice was to have his friend, Bob Babich, man the position, but given his lack of experience at the time, the Bears would not allow it.
Getting “stuck” with Rivera turned out well for Lovie, as the Bears had one of the best defenses in the league in 2005 and 2006 under his tutelage. Though they didn’t always agree on philosophy, it somehow worked with Rivera running the show. It also culminated in two playoff appearances, including the 2006 Super Bowl.
After the Bears fell to Indianapolis in the big game, Smith decided he wanted to go in a different direction. He told Rivera the Bears would not renew his contract. With his newfound power from making the Super Bowl and a very generous new contract, Smith deemed it was time to put his friend Babich in charge of the defense.
In addition, Lovie now had sway with personnel moves. He was in the ear of GM Jerry Angelo, angling for players he coveted. Unfortunately, his scouting and developing ability were on par with his coaching skills—in other words—nil. Year after year the Bears drafted safeties at Smith’s urging. They turned out to be bigger busts than you find at the local gentleman’s club.
Making the Super Bowl garnered Smith riches and power, but it almost didn’t happen. The Bears had a bye that year, and in their first playoff game against Seattle, they were tied with just a few seconds left in regulation. Seattle had the ball near midfield. Lovie inexplicably called a timeout as the clock was about to run out. At that point, the only possible outcome the timeout called would do was benefit Seattle. They could have thrown a Hail Mary and won the game, or, there could have been a defensive penalty and Seattle would have had the ball near the goal line to kick a game-winning field goal since the game can’t end on a defensive penalty.
Again, by the skin of his teeth, Lovie lucked out. The Bears won the game in overtime on a Robbie Gould field goal, and then beat the Saints in the NFC Championship Game.
With Rivera gone, the once great Bears defense went in the toilet with Babich running the show. Chicago missed the playoffs three straight years from 2007–09, when Lovie took over the defense from Babich, who was demoted. It got no better under Lovie, but the stars smiled down on him once again when Marinelli became available and took over the job.
Whenever anything went wrong, the coordinators took the blame. Smith went through four offensive coordinators during his tenure, and if you count Lovie as the defensive coordinator, the same number of DC's. Everybody was at fault for the team’s failures except for the head coach.
Smith was on the hot seat in 2010. Word was it was playoffs or bust for him. Fortunately, with Marinelli resurrecting the defense and a string of luck that any Vegas gambler would sell his soul for, the Bears made the playoffs. Of course, they were virtually injury-free, while the rival Green Bay Packers had 16 players on injured reserve that year. The Bears were also favored constantly playing teams with second- or third-string quarterbacks starting the game. Add in two pseudo-road games when Buffalo played a “home” game in Toronto in front of a crowd of mostly Bears fans, and the Metrodome roof collapse, (a house of horrors for the Bears) with the Bears instead playing in much friendlier surroundings at the University of Minnesota.
Then in the playoffs, the Bears had a bye before playing the 7–9 Seattle Seahawks for a spot in the NFC title game.
Despite everything going Lovie’s way, Green Bay still managed to beat the Bears in the NFC Championship Game and went on to win the Super Bowl. If Smith had 16 players on IR, the Bears would have had the No. 1 draft pick the next year.
There is one missing ingredient I have failed to mention that made Smith prosper. His name is Devin Hester—the best return man in the history of the league. With Hester returning kicks and punts for touchdowns, or otherwise great field position—the team excelled. When Rivera left and Hester had a couple of down years in 2008 and 2009, failing to return any kicks for scores—the Bears suffered. When Marinelli took over in 2010, the defense was suddenly relevant again, and along with a revived Hester, the Bears made the postseason again, saving Smith’s job.
Along with Hester, the Bears had Gould as their kicker for most of Lovie’s tenure in Chicago. Gould currently ranks as the third-most accurate kicker of all-time. Add in special teams coordinator Dave Toub, one of the best in the league during that time, and Lovie had every advantage possible in terms of field position. What are the odds of having the greatest return man ever, one of the best kickers in the history of the league, and a special teams coach that makes you look much better than you are at your job? Lovie has always gotten by with luck—not skill.
In Chicago, he was known for his arrogance. At press conferences, he chastised reporters who dared to question his strategy. It worked. He was rarely fed tough questions after losses. It protected him from being found out.
Lovie has always gotten by with luck—not skill.
According to Merriam-Webster, a charlatan is a person who falsely pretends to know or be something in order to deceive people. My favorite definition of the word comes from The Free Dictionary by Farlex: A totally unqualified individual posing as an expert.
Lovie Smith knows nothing about offensive football. Need examples? He actually said the following: “Rex (Grossman) is our quarterback.”
As for his supposed forte with defense, Urlacher was the perfect center fielder for that defense playing middle linebacker, and Charles Tillman’ “Peanut Punch” was the reason they were so good creating turnovers. Smith wasn’t making the players successful. It was the other way around.
Tampa is bottom of the league in team defense and has allowed 165 points in its last four games. That ties a franchise record for most points allowed in four consecutive games. When you factor in the Atlanta and Baltimore games—when the opposing offenses let up because of the extreme blowouts—the number would have been far worse.
Smith recently came out after the latest blowout saying he might not have the right players to run things the way he wants. That's after the team spent over $55 million in the offseason, with Lovie’s handpicked GM Jason Licht assisting in the process. That means the players they picked up along with those they let go were all decisions made by Lovie.
When he let go of Rivera as his defensive coordinator after the Super Bowl, he said, “You should trust me as a head coach to put us in the best position to win football games.” You know how that turned out. When asked if he planned on changing from the Tampa 2 as his defense, he let it be known there was zero chance of that happening, going on about how he has run it since he came into the league. A smart coach adjusts to change, and uses the players he has to put them in the best system to win games. Lovie has never shown the ability to do that.
So when you watch the Bucs on Sunday, look for when the camera pans to Lovie on the sideline—just like in Chicago—staring up at the sky with the same blank expression as his team is being obliterated. Some may call it stoic. I call it clueless.