• Given another NFL chance, Mike Smith has made the most of his opportunity in Tampa Bay, and the Buccaneers' defense—ahead of a primetime matchup against the NFL-best Cowboys—is firing on all cylinders.
By Jonathan Jones
December 15, 2016

After the Atlanta Falcons relieved Mike Smith of his head coaching duties following the 2014 season—the second straight losing season for the franchise’s all-time winningest coach—Smith decided to take some time off.

During that time, Smith spent about two months co-writing a book with best-selling author Jon Gordon on how to build a winning team. He also consulted with the league’s officiating office on a weekly basis and regularly analyzed All-22 film, to stay connected to the game.

And, on a rotating basis with other parents, Smith kept the stats book for his daughter’s high school lacrosse team.

“Well,” Smith said Thursday night, laughing, “it was either work in the concessions [stand] or do stats. So I took the lesser of the two.”

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He and the rest of the NFL world knew it wouldn’t take too long for Smith to land another gig. The best stat-keeper that team has ever seen is now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator, and in the past five weeks no defense has been better. They’ve allowed 12.8 points in the past five wins, given up six touchdowns and recorded 14 takeaways as they enter Sunday night’s tilt with the finally-beatable Dallas Cowboys.

The story would be too tidy if, in a year of finding himself, Smith re-calibrated and took a new approach to coaching. He admits he doesn’t know if he wants to do anything differently as a coach, aside from the inherent differences between a head coach and coordinator, of course. Smith emphasizes communication—the fourth C in his book You Win in the Locker Room First—and has no problem falling back in line under command.

“When you’re the defensive coordinator you have a unit that you’re in charge of,” Smith said. “I wanted to be sure that we were communicative. This game has gotten so complex that guys have got to do a good job of communicating that it changes from week to week.”

By all appearances, this is the same Mike Smith that we saw on HBO’s Hard Knocks in 2014, demanding toughness from a team that went 4–12 the previous season, but ultimately couldn’t win an NFC South won by the 7-8-1 Panthers that year. But he’s also the same coach who came within a play of a Super Bowl appearance and won 56 games in five seasons, bested only in that span by Bill Belichick.

The truth is, Smith failed in Atlanta because the Falcons simply didn’t have the defensive guns. They ranked dead last in total defense in 2014 and lost 34–3 in the Georgia Dome in a win-and-in finale against the Panthers. Just two starters from that Week 17 game started for Dan Quinn in Atlanta’s season opener this year.

There’s a feeling that Smith, even if he wouldn’t admit it now, could have turned it around with another year. (He admitted so in the book and pointed to Bill Cowher’s sixth and seventh seasons in Pittsburgh for precedent.) In the next two drafts, the Falcons spent their top two picks on defensive players.

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“Typical of the NFL. For five years you’re a genius and now you can’t even tie your shoes, which obviously isn’t the case,” said Brian Billick, Smith’s brother-in-law who employed Smith with the Ravens from 1999–2002. “Ultimately when you’re somewhere for seven years, you’re going to be held accountable for it. But to think that all of a sudden he and (former Atlanta defensive coordinator) Mike Nolan didn’t know defensive football is ludicrous. Now he goes to Tampa and takes a team that was terrible and they’re playing pretty damn good right now.”

To be fair, the Buccaneers were 6–10 under Lovie Smith last season with the 10th-ranked defense. This year’s team has won four games without scoring more than 19 points, which is a feat in today’s NFL. But in keeping with fairness, Tampa Bay was dreadful at the start of this season.

Tampa Bay allowed a league-high 101 points in the first three weeks, including a home loss to the Rams, then led by coach Jeff Fisher and QB Case Keenum.

“I don’t know that I did a very good job of coaching those first three weeks,” Smith said. “I think it was a new system. I think it took a little bit longer than it probably should have to get the guys up to speed. They’ve done a really good job of working at it throughout the season to get a better understanding of what we’re trying to get accomplished. A lot of credit goes to the players and their resiliency because we didn’t play well in the first three or four games.”

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The Buccaneers got it together after an embarrassing 43–28 loss at home to the Falcons on Thursday Night Football in Week 9. Smith said the communication got better (of course) but also that the defense rallied around being better than the previous day. That led to successive wins against Chicago, in Kansas City, Seattle, in San Diego and finally last week against New Orleans.

Facing Drew Brees in a gotta-have-it game for the below-.500 Saints, Smith’s defense recorded two interceptions and forced a punt in New Orleans’ three fourth-quarter drives to preserve the 16–11 win and remain tied with the Falcons atop the NFC South.

Gerald McCoy’s consistency has been a key. The seventh-year defensive tackle has racked up 6 1/2 sacks already this season and is likely headed to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl. Twenty-two-year-old Kwon Alexander is quickly becoming the best linebacker you need to know about with his 86 tackles, three sacks and interception. And the backend has been bolstered by free-agent addition (and former Falcon) Brent Grimes, first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves and steady play from safeties Chris Conte and backup Keith Tandy.

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When asked about a second act as a head coach, Smith remains diplomatic. He’s just trying to win the next game and help Dirk Koetter and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he says. Naturally he’s auditioning for another top job, though.

Just like aspiring politicians, you don’t write a book just to add “author” to your Wikipedia page. Smith interviewed with the Giants in January before New York went in-house with Ben McAdoo. His name will no doubt come up after the regular season when Gus Bradley is relieved of his duties in Jacksonville, where Smith served as a defensive coordinator for five seasons.

“People will ask why do you hire a retread? Bill Belichick got fired. Jack Del Rio got fired. Andy Reid got fired,” said Billick, now an NFL Network analyst who is admittedly biased when it comes to his brother-in-law. “I would hope that Mike would be thought of in that capacity because I think he’d make a hell of a head coach again.”

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What the Bucs’ defense does against the Cowboys will go a long way toward Smith’s candidacy. Sunday’s game is the biggest for Smith since that win-or-go-home game in 2014 where he ultimately went home. The Bucs were flexed into the night slot with the NFL’s ratings cow for their first Sunday night game since George W. Bush’s presidency.

Tampa Bay and the rest of the NFL has the formula to beat Dallas courtesy of the Giants and Vikings the previous two weeks: stop the Cowboys on third down, limit the running game and avoid the big plays. A win against the 11–2 Cowboys with their rookie sensations would go a long way to help both Smith’s aspirations and the Bucs’ playoff chances.

Fairly respectable for a former high school stats keeper.

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