Mort and Adam look at Lovie Smith's firing in Tampa Bay, Jim Irsay's decision to keep Chuck Pagano in Indy and much more.
Lovie Smith's firing as the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Wednesday night was indeed a surprise, but when one considers the history of the Glazer family ownership, it's shame on anyone for being blindsided by anything it does.
In fact, there were whispers after a 2-14 record in 2014 -- Smith's first season as coach -- that the Glazers were upset with the team's performance in light of liberal spending on the free-agent market that resulted in the NFL's worst record. Yet Smith also faced challenges with an offensive coordinator, Jeff Tedford, who had a significant health issue that sidelined him for the season. That was a consideration when Smith returned and they were able to land Dirk Koetter this season after Koetter was let go from Mike Smith's staff in Atlanta.
There is no question Koetter is a strong candidate, and perhaps the favorite, to succeed Smith. It would be naive not to acknowledge that. At least three or four teams had fairly high interest in Koetter as a head coaching candidate. Koetter has been gold with quarterbacks -- from coaching David Garrard to his best seasons in Jacksonville, to overseeing the growth of Matt Ryan's development in Atlanta, plus the strong work he did with rookie Jameis Winston, the quarterback who was the No. 1 pick in 2015. Teams interested in him either have young quarterbacks or will draft a quarterback at the end of April.
Yet Koetter, like Bruce Arians and a few others, has never been a self-promoter. He also was upset with the sudden firing of Smith, per sources. Most of his head coaching aspirations have been limited to a possible return to the Pacific Northwest, where he grew up, where he coached at Boise State and played quarterback at Idaho State. He was highly successful as both a head coach and player. As head coach at Arizona State, he elevated the Sun Devils to one of the best offensive teams in the nation, despite recruiting challenges as USC dominated the region.
Koetter relishes coaching Winston and Winston relishes being coached by Koetter, according to multiple sources. The team could always hire somebody outside the organization, but Koetter makes sense.
Smith's firing may not make sense to many people. (Not here, either.) Two years and that's it. Welcome to today's NFL. The fact that he was fired in a phone call isn't quite that simple. He was called Wednesday night by general manager Jason Licht to inform him the Glazers wanted to fly in for a meeting Thursday. Smith sensed the apprehension in Licht's message. He told Licht to inform the Glazers not to fly in, to announce what they had to announce, and he headed to team headquarters to clean out his office.
Sources say Smith's firing was rooted in the Glazer family's frustration with another losing season, a weak finish after some promising moments with Winston, certain staff hires, a high level of penalties and a defense in regression. Smith's background is as a defensive coach though personnel work still was a work in progress -- which any reasonable coach would expect during a four- or five-year stretch.
The Glazers once fired the highly successful Tony Dungy after six seasons and might have axed him earlier if not for then-GM Rich McKay's resistance to dismissing him. The Glazers eventually got their way and paid an exorbitant price to the Oakland Raiders for Jon Gruden -- two first-round draft picks, two second-round draft picks and $8 million in cash -- and Gruden finished the work Dungy had started by winning their only Super Bowl.
Eventually, the Glazers fired Gruden, too, at an unexpected time -- three weeks after the 2008 season, as the Bucs collapsed following a 9-3 start. They replaced him with defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. He lasted three years. Then they hired Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, who was fired after two years. In came Smith.
Yes, they once tried to hire Chip Kelly. But unless the indicators are off, don't expect Kelly to be a strong candidate this time around. -- CM
Jim Irsay makes clear what many suspected
Of all the remarks Colts owner Jim Irsay made at the late-night news conference to announce contract extensions for head coach Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson, one that was overlooked was the most intriguing. After Irsay, Pagano and Grigson finished their introductory remarks, the first question was posed to the Colts' owner: "Jim, when you woke up this morning, was it a blank canvas as far as the future of this franchise?"
Irsay then talked about the careful consideration he and his advisers gave to the future of his franchise. He recalled the Colts' slow start and the injuries they had to overcome. He admitted he views himself as the "steward" of the franchise and thinks it is his responsibility to "bring great things to the Horseshoe, to bring them the right way to make our city and state proud of the Colts." And then he made an admission that lacked details but corresponded with the subsequent reports that the Colts expressed some level of interest in Saints head coach Sean Payton.
"Look," Irsay told reporters Monday night, "I could have walked someone in that door tonight or tomorrow night and have them come walking in with eight figures a year on themselves or whatever and say, 'I'm making the big splash.' Look, if that was the best for us, believe me, I would do it."
So there it is, in one simple statement. Broken down to its most basic form, Irsay considered making a play for Payton, or Stanford coach David Shaw, or some high-profile coach who would have come with a hefty price tag and huge headlines. As he should have. He admitted he considered it, he admitted it would have been costly, and he knew the attention that would have come along with it. But in the end, he didn't push through with it. When Irsay sat back and contemplated the entire situation, he decided the Horsehsoe was better off with a Pagano-Grigson combo than a Payton or Shaw or whatever other high-profile coach he could hire.
But his comments were the ultimate proof that Irsay did what any good owner should. He considered all the options. He pondered all the possibilities. And then he made the decision he felt was best before scheduling the news conference at which he made a statement that got lost in many of the other words he uttered.
Sometimes the smallest remarks have the biggest meaning. -- AS
The plight of top defenders in the draft
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, projected by many around the league as the top defensive prospect in the 2016 NFL draft, suffered a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl, as Mort has reported. His prognosis is now unclear. But in some ways, it is a premature continuation of a curse that has surrounded some of the top defensive players in the draft.
None of the past four players who were the first defensive players selected in the past four NFL drafts -- as some projected Smith to be -- has lived up to his potential, with health a major culprit, at least at this point in their NFL careers.
Last year, Jacksonville made former Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. the top defensive player selected in the draft, and he tore his ACL in his first practice as a pro. Two years ago, Houston made former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney the top defensive player selected in the draft, and he suffered a knee injury during his rookie year that required microfracture surgery. Three years ago, the Dolphins made former Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan the top defensive player selected in the draft, and he is now serving a year-long suspension. Four years ago, the Cowboys made former LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne the top defensive player selected in the draft, and he has battled knee and shoulder injuries and demotions throughout his time in Dallas.
Now Smith has been stricken with a knee injury that will impact his rookie season, if not completely take it away. But another defensive standout is expected to become the first defensive player selected. Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa is forgoing his senior season to enter the draft. Elsewhere, Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey is in the draft, and Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner already was in the conversation as one of the top defensive players.
But as much as each of these college defensive standouts would like to be the first defensive player selected in the upcoming NFL draft, they also should be aware that it is an honor that has carried something of a curse. To the disappointment of many, Smith already has experienced it. -- AS
Off the schneid
There are teams that can't seem to make it to the playoffs such as Buffalo, Cleveland and Oakland. And then there are teams that can't seem to win once they get there. Cincinnati and Kansas City, the two AFC teams with the longest playoff droughts without a win, both are headed back to the postseason to try to simultaneously erase this distinction and to advance to the Divisional Playoff round.
Cincinnati has lost six straight postseason games dating to January 1991, the last time the Bengals won a playoff game, which they happened to do in the wild-card round against a team that no longer even exists, the Houston Oilers. Now they must try to snap their playoff losing streak against the team that snapped Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's thumb, leaving AJ McCarron as the likely starter for Saturday night's wild-card matchup.
Kansas City has lost eight straight postseason games dating to January 1994, the last time the Chiefs won a playoff game, which they happened to do in the wild-card round against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now they get the upstart Houston Texans in a Saturday wild-card matchup on ESPN at 4:30 pm ET.
In other words, it's been a long time since Cincinnati or Kansas City could see its NFL team move on when it mattered most. This season, the Chiefs and Bengals have enjoyed some of the AFC's finest success. But they have done it against the backdrop of a history of postseason failures they now are hoping to erase. -- AS