Why the Bucs waited to fire Mike Smith

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter talks to reporters on October 15, 2018 following the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Smith. Smith is being replaced by linebackers coach Mark Duffner. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter talks to reporters on October 15, 2018 following the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Smith. Smith is being replaced by linebackers coach Mark Duffner. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published October 15 2018
Updated October 15 2018

TAMPA — Exactly two weeks ago, Bucs coach Dirk Koetter stood at the same podium following an embarrassing 48-10 loss at Chicago and asked this rhetorical question: "We fire Mike Smith. Okay, then what would the next move be?''

Well, the Bucs are about to find out.

On Monday, after watching the defense dig another deep hole in the first half at Atlanta, Koetter fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith.

Smith's defense was last in total yardage in 2017 and is allowing 34.6 points per game this season, the most in the league. The Bucs are on pace to allow the most points in NFL history.

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They have been doomed by slow starts on defense. Tampa Bay has allowed an average of 30.7 points in the first half of their last three games, all defeats.

On Sunday, the Falcons scored on four of their first five possessions to build a 24-13 halftime lead.

Koetter said 65-year-old linebackers coach Mark Duffner will replace Smith as defensive coordinator. He will continue to also coach linebackers.

Koetter and the Bucs were hoping Smith could solve the problems during the bye week. That might have been a better time to dismiss Smith to give Duffner a chance to evaluate and decide what changes should be made without the immediacy of facing Cleveland Sunday.

Why didn't Koetter make the move after watching Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky throw six touchdown passes?

"Well, because we were going into the bye week. We had quite a few things, injury-wise, not work out the way we originally planned,'' Koetter said. "I thought it was important both sides of the ball be able to go through the self-scouting process during the bye week and see if we could make some adjustments that would help us play better as a football team. I do think we had a good plan on defense for Atlanta. We did a lot of things we planned to do. We did some things differently. But it just didn't work out that way."

While consulting with general manager Jason Licht, Koetter said the decision to fire Smith was his alone and he informed players during a team meeting Monday. Koetter and Smith have a long history. They were coordinators for Jack Del Rio's staff at Jacksonville for one season. As the Falcons head coach, Smith hired Koetter to be his offensive coordinator.

Koetter said firing Smith was the second-hardest thing he's had to deal with as a head coach. He had a player die while he was a head coach for Boise State.

"I didn't ever see this day coming but it's here,'' Koetter said. "So we have to make decisions that give us the best chance for our football team moving forward. That's all you can do.''

Duffner worked on the same Jacksonville staff as Koetter and Smith in 2007.

The Bucs have been particularly abysmal in the red zone. Of the 16 trips by opponents inside the 20-yard line, 15 have ended with touchdowns. In 48 total red-zone plays this season, the Bucs have no sacks and no interceptions.

Koetter said the biggest problem has been pass coverage, or the lack thereof. Tampa Bay has only nine sacks this season, five by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. The Bucs are playing three rookies a significant amount of time — cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart and safety Jordan Whitehead.

Even with receivers Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley forced to leave Sunday's game with injuries, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan passed for 354 yards and three touchdowns.

"We have to cover better and part of covering better is getting pressure on the quarterback," Koetter said. "Now the last two teams we played have gone to a lot of seven-man protection. I think we are getting some pressure with the four-man rush. When it's four on seven, we did blitz more yesterday and we pressured a lot more. But you know, we're just giving up too many chunk plays.''

Smith, 59, had a decent debut when the Bucs went 9-7 in 2016. The Bucs were 15th in points per game (23.1) and first in third down defense. During that offseason  he interviewed for the Jaguars and Chargers head coaching jobs before signing a contract extension with the Bucs that made him the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the NFL.

Firing coordinators during the season is rare. The last time the Bucs dismissed a member of the coaching staff during the season was defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who was fired by coach Raheem Morris 10 games into the 2009 season. Morris took over the defensive play-calling duties and the Bucs went 10-6 the following year.

Linebacker Lavonte David said some players may feel responsible for Smith's firing.

"I mean, I'm not sure,'' David said. "But me personally, I feel kind of like that because some of the guys out there were really playing for him so I feel like maybe I wasn't out there giving my best to help him keep his job.''

Knowing Smith made it even harder, he said.

"Coach is really a standup guy. He never threw anybody under the bus," David said. "He was always a positive guy it's hard to see someone like that go, especially a person like that who has great character.''

Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud