TAMPA – Lovie Smith had a choice. After his dismissal by the Chicago Bears a year ago, he could either sit around and do nothing for the next 12 months or devote the downtime he’d suddenly been blessed with to self-improvement.
Never one to mope over a setback, and confident he’d be back in an NFL head coach’s position within a year, Smith chose the latter.
He focused first on being a better husband to his wife of 35 years, MaryAnne, then on being a better grandfather to his newborn grandson, Jackson. Finally, he turned his attention to being a better football coach.
He turned the basement of his Chicago-area home into a classroom, studying NFL games and trends from Sunday through Thursday. On the weekends, he took off to watch high school and college games all across the country.
Along the way he re-evaluated everything he did during his nine years with the Bears, picking apart everything from his practice schedules to travel plans to see if there was a better, more effective way of doing them.
“When you get fired and in your last three years you have a 12-win season with a trip to the NFC championship game, an eight-win season after you lose your quarterback when you’re 7-3 and a 10-6 season, that’s not saying to me that you have to change everything, that you’ve got this whole thing screwed up,’’ Smith said Monday. “What it says to me is we just have to tweak some things and then go from there.’’
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are hoping to gain from those tweaks.
The team officially introduced Smith, 55, as the 10th head coach in franchise history Monday, handing him a team that went 11-21 under his predecessor, Greg Schiano, including 4-12 in 2013.
And a few tweaks, Smith said, might be all the Bucs need to regain the relevancy that has dissipated from the franchise since it last reached the playoffs under former coach Jon Gruden in 2007.
“When you’re off for a year you have a chance to watch a lot of football and from watching this team, I really like the foundation that we have here and believe we can make a quick climb,’’ Smith said. “I really do.’’
Smith moved quickly in his efforts to build a staff, adding former University of California coach Jeff Tedford as his offensive coordinator and former Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier as his defensive coordinator.
Having used part of the last year off to interview potential assistant coaches, Smith has made quick progress on that front, as well, and hopes to have the rest of the staff in place before the week is out.
Neither Smith nor the Bucs, however, are seemingly in a hurry to add a general manager to replace Mark Dominik, who was fired last week after a five-year stint.
Unlike Schiano or Raheem Morris before him, Smith has been give contractual control over the final makeup of the team’s 53-man roster, which is something he had during his tenure in Chicago, as well.
“He won’t be on the phone with another GM at the trade deadline saying,’ ‘Hey about this for this,’’’ Smith’s agent, son Matthew, said. “And everyone will have their opinion heard and at the end it will always be a group decision. But teams are starting to move in this direction more and more.
“Pete Carroll has a lot of influence on personnel in Seattle and they’re very good. Andy Reid has a lot of say in personnel in Kansas City and they’re very good. Football coaches know football. They know the best guys to perform in their system, so having a large voice in (personnel matters) is very important. It worked for us in Chicago.’’
Smith is a defense-oriented coach who came to the NFL as the Bucs linebackers coach under former coach Tony Dungy in 1996. His system of choice was originally the Tampa 2 scheme he helped make famous here in Tampa.
Smith, however, began to veer away from that scheme a few years ago, using it less and less the last two years in Chicago. That trend is likely to continue here in Tampa, he said.
“Defense-wise, we’re a 4-3 team,’’ Smith said referring to the traditional four-linemen, three-linebacker set. “And I just want you to know that, especially with Darrelle Revis here, we don’t play Cover 2 every snap.
“We have plays for a great cover corner that’s physical and can do all things, and so I’m excited about getting our hands on him and putting him in a position to make plays for us.’’
Smith is equally excited to work with two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, saying his one-gap defense is “all about the three-technique,’’ as well as All-Pro linebacker Lavonte David.
“There are not a lot of players like Derrick Brooks, and it’s not even fair to compare some guys that way, but Lavonte David has a chance,’’ Smith said. “He’s that younger version coming up.’’
Smith also appears encouraged by Bucs rookie quarterback Mike Glennon.
“If you look at the offensive side of the football, you do have a quarterback in place,’’ Smith said. “And I’ve had a chance to watch growth from Mike from the time he started until the end of the season.
“But we want to be a strong running team. We want to have a power running attack, but we have to have balance with the offense, so we have to be able to pass the ball and have big-play ability in the passing game.’’
Smith didn’t downplay the importance of special teams, either. A coach who drafted return specialist Devin Hester in 2006 and went to the Super Bowl with him that same year, Smith said the Bucs will seek to excel on special teams.
“We have to have great specialists,’’ he said. “When we send our kicker out onto the field to kick a field goal, we expect him to make it. We also have to have a good punter, but in order for us to have three phases that contribute to wins, you need a great return man also. So we are excited abut putting more pieces together with this, then we are going to take off.’’
The Bears certainly took off under Smith. Like the Bucs, they won only 11 games in the two seasons prior to his arrival in 2004. But after a 5-11 start under Smith, Chicago won 24 games the next two seasons, reaching the Super Bowl in 2006.
There are obvious similarities between this Bucs team and the Bears team he inherited, but the biggest difference, Smith said, is that the Bucs are getting a better coach than the Bears.
“Just ask yourself, when was the last time we were in the playoffs?’’ Smith said rhetorically, referring to the 2007 season. “That right there tells you all you really need to know, because that’s not acceptable. We have to do more than that.
“Again, I got fired after going 10-6. So, my mindset right now is that a good year is 11-5, and it just shows that we’re not where we need to be, but there are some pieces in place. So it’s time to look forward instead of behind, and I know we have a good plan in place and I know that (this) time, we’re going to be better prepared to finish the job.’’