TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are searching for their fourth coach in seven years after deciding Lovie Smith wasn't the answer to making the franchise relevant again.
General manager Jason Licht said Thursday that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is a strong candidate to fill the vacancy after working with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston this season. Licht stressed the Bucs also will explore options outside the organization to try to transform the last-place team into a playoff contender.
''Great coaches come in different shapes and sizes and personalities,'' the second-year GM said during a news conference not attended by members of the Glazer family, who own the club and made the decision to fire Smith on Wednesday.
''There are a lot of quality football coaches that are going to be available. There's been a lot of interest already, just in the last few hours,'' Licht added. ''Dirk Koetter is definitely one of those to be a very strong candidate. He's got a strong resume.''
Koetter was hired last winter after spending the previous three seasons working with Matt Ryan as offensive coordinator in Atlanta. The Bucs ranked 30th among 32 teams in yards gained before his arrival, but jumped to No. 5 this season, with Winston throwing for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Licht declined to discuss specific reasons for Smith's dismissal after the coach compiled an 8-24 record over two seasons, saying it was a not a day to ''dissect failures'' but rather ''talk about the future.''
Smith learned of the firing by telephone before declining an opportunity to meet face to face with the Glazers. He had two seasons and $10 million remaining on his contract.
''We came in together two years ago with a shared vision of winning, asking fans not to be patient, to win quickly,'' Licht said, ''And we've all shared in the blame of that not happening.''
The Bucs improved by four victories to 6-10 this season. However, they finished on a four-game losing streak that left them out of the playoffs for the eighth straight year.
This is Tampa Bay's fourth coaching change since the end of 2008. The franchise last earned a postseason berth in 2007 and hasn't won a playoff game since the club's Super Bowl run 13 years ago.
Licht defended the decision announced by team co-chairman Joel Glazer in a brief late-night statement by the team.
''I commend them on the fact they take their time, they think things through, they don't make emotional decisions, they don't make in-season decisions,'' Licht said. ''I think when you have eight wins in two years, three home wins in two years, I think they've been patient enough. It does take time, but I think while you're building a good football team, you can compete.''
It's not the first time Smith was fired following a season when his team showed improvement. He led the Bears to an 81-63 record, three division titles, two NFC championship games and one Super Bowl appearance during a nine-season stint that ended with the coach being fired after going 10-6 but not making the playoffs in 2012.
Two days before his dismissal, the 57-year-old Smith said he believed the Bucs were on track to earn a postseason berth next season.
''I think the message is pretty clear for all of us, it is about next year: `Guys, we're going to be a good football team. We've laid the foundation, now it's time for us to reap the benefits of that.' That's the message going forward,'' Smith said he told players during a final team meeting Monday.
''If you believe in what we're doing right now, we all will do more and we're going to have better success next year,'' the coach added. ''Once we get to a point where it's a critical time, we're going to get over the hump next time. The culture of (not) having losing seasons is just a year away. Guys believe that.''
Smith's successor will inherit one of the youngest rosters in the NFL. Five drafted five players became immediate starters over the past two seasons, but also made a number of mistakes in free agency that set the club back.
On defense, the team spent generously to bolster an inconsistent pass rush and improve a porous secondary after releasing cornerback Darrelle Revis shortly after Smith and Licht took over. But opposing quarterbacks completed 70 percent of their passes and had a combined passer rating of 102.5 this season.
The Bucs also ranked 26th in scoring defense, allowing 24 or more in 10 games.
Licht said there's no definitive timetable for hiring a replacement.
''We'd like to be fairly quick with this,'' the GM said, ''but we're not going to sacrifice thoroughness for it.''
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL