TAMPA — The NFL coaching carousel is beginning to spin, and the Bucs could learn soon if it's won and done for defensive coordinator Mike Smith.
The former Falcons head coach (2008-14) should get a lot of consideration for the job openings starting to bloom around the league. Smith, 57, who went 67-50 with four playoff appearances with the Falcons, has turned the Bucs defense into one of the best in the NFL over the past six weeks. It was reported he came close to getting the Giants coaching job last year.
The Rams and Jaguars already have fired their respective coaches, Jeff Fisher and Gus Bradley. There also could be openings with Buffalo, San Diego, San Francisco and the New York Jets, and there's always a surprise firing or two.
Smith's name has been on the lips of many NFL insiders as a possible replacement for Bradley in Jacksonville. Smith was the Jaguars' defensive coordinator from 2003-07. In a bit, we'll get into why he might not be the perfect fit this time around.
The Bucs had to know when they hired Smith to install a new defense this season that he could return to being a head coach after a year. They have other coaches on the defensive staff capable of taking over the job.
"I wish the best for all coaches that they get what they want," Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. "Smitty has been a way more successful coach in this league than I have. I mean, look at his record. I believe Mike Smith would make a tremendous head coach for another team.
"When I got this job, I was just focused on getting the best staff that I could at the time, and I knew who I wanted leading our defense and wasn't too worried about the what ifs after that because, heck, if we don't do a good job, we're going to be right out there with him. That's just reality. I don't spend too much time thinking about that."
Smith isn't fanning the flames about his chance to become a head coach again.
"Rumors are rampant this time of year," he said. "I'm enjoying my time here. I want to make this team the best team it can be. You don't address rumors."
The dominoes have to fall before you can project who will land where.
The most attractive coaching candidate in the NFL would seem to be Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh, who from 2011-14 took the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl, which he lost to Baltimore, coached by his brother, John.
But Harbaugh has had only two seasons at Michigan, where he has a good chance of winning a national championship at some point.
The Rams, and maybe the 49ers, would like to lure former Bucs coach Jon Gruden out of the Monday Night Football booth. But Gruden hasn't been on the sideline in eight years, and given that he is the highest-paid ESPN employee with an annual salary reportedly of $6.5 million, many believe his coaching ship has sailed. Other Super Bowl-winning coaches such as Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher have had ample opportunities to return to coaching but have preferred the less-stressful career of TV analyst.
A report by CBS last week said the Saints might be willing to trade coach Sean Payton without demanding much compensation. Losing Payton would free up about $40 million for them. Besides, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has only one year left on his contract.
How would Smith fit with the two jobs currently available? The Rams and Jaguars have made big investments in young quarterbacks and might prefer an offensive coach.
Teams typically hire the opposite of what they had. Bradley was a first-time head coach who had been the Seahawks' defensive coordinator. If saving quarterback Blake Bortles is Jacksonville's priority, do the Jaguars bring in a guy such as Smith or opt for a young offensive mind such as Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter or Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who has head coaching experience with Denver?
There is chatter about former Jaguars and Giants head coach Tom Coughlin rejoining the Jags, but that would likely be in a front office position.
The Rams likely have similar desires. They paid a bounty for the No. 1 overall draft pick this year to take Cal quarterback Jared Goff. Los Angeles is a plum job in the No. 2 media market and will have an incredible stadium built in a few years.
For Smith to get either the Jaguars or Rams job, he may have to sell the ownership on a member of his presumptive coaching staff who would fix the quarterback.
It might not happen this year, but sooner than later, Smith will be coaching against the Bucs.
"My focus is on one thing, and that's for us to be the best defense we can be," Smith said. "It's been enlightening for me to be able to get back and coach and roll my sleeves up."