Lovie Smith is Not the Defensive Coordinator

After three increasingly difficult to handle losses were in the books, the question floating around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed to be one of who should be blamed. To be fair, no one man, coach or player, is to blame for the way the team has performed. In the end, this is a team. They lost, and finally won, as a team. However, there’s one man who seems to have flown completely under the radar when it comes to holding him accountable.

When the offseason unfolded and the coaching staff was being assembled, this was pretty exclusively seen as the team of Lovie Smith, Jason Licht, and Jeff Tedford. Without a doubt, the general manager, head coach, and offensive coordinator are important positions. Did everyone forget that we also have a defensive coordinator? As the offense fails, the reasoning comes back to Jeff Tedford and the performance of Marcus Arroyo as a playcaller in his absence. As the defense fails, the collective anger goes straight for Lovie Smith as if there isn’t a defensive coordinator.

This has as much to do with Lovie Smith as it does Leslie Frazier. Smith is amongst the most well respected men in this business, and few in football would say otherwise. He’s also seen by many and often described as a defensive guru. This comes back to the way that the Chicago Bears played during his time there as a head coach. The identity of the Bears was that of defense. Offense was nice if it happened, but they were consistently good on defense. It certainly helped that their defense boasted quite a bit of talent, not the least of which being elite linebacker and possible future hall of famer Brian Urlacher.

Lovie had a lot of help from the position of defensive coordinator when he was in Chicago. In his first three years, the defensive coordinator in Chicago was Ron Rivera. Ron Rivera is currently at the head coaching helm of the Carolina Panthers, who have arguably the best defensive front seven in the league right now. Lovie’s first year in Chicago went poorly at 5-11 to finish the season, but he immediately turned it around by going 11-5 in 2005 and 13-3 while en route to a Super Bowl loss in 2006. Unfortunately, this was the end of the Ron Rivera years.

Following that Super Bowl loss, Rivera departed and the position of defensive coordinator was taken by Chicago’s then linebackers coach Bob Babich. Babich is currently in his second year as the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars. This is a logical progression for a coordinator which helped Lovie’s supposedly elite defense flounder with for the following three years with records of 7-9, 9-7, and 7-9. After three consecutive years without a playoff bid, the Bears had another partial housecleaning.

Lovie Smith stayed, but the position of defensive coordinator was taken by Rod Marinelli. Marinelli’s first venture in coaching was as a defensive line coach and assistant to Tony Dungy from 1995 to 2001. His role in developing Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp during that time was no doubt what Smith had in mind when he was brought in.

At least, for the sake of Smith’s decision making, I hope that was what he had in mind. The only other thing of note on Marinelli’s professional coaching resume is having the worst single-season record in NFL history when he led the 2008 Detroit Lions to an 0-16 season. Thankfully, that failure took that record from the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers who only went 0-14. Thanks for that one, Rod!

With Rod Marinelli in place to lead the defense, and an offense of the newly acquired Jay Cutler at quarterback, Matt Forte at running back, and Mike Martz as their new offensive coordinator, Lovie Smith’s 2010 Chicago Bears made the playoffs for the first time since their 2006 Super Bowl loss. They lost to the eventual 2010 Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers, and subsequently missed the playoffs in Lovie’s last two seasons in Chicago.

Lovie Smith continues to be praised as a defensive guru, but the closer I look, the more it seems like this sentiment was a product of his coordinators and his players. Don’t get me wrong, I still want Lovie Smith as our coach. However, I do not believe he can flip this ship right side up on his own. The success of the defense in their Super Bowl bid can be attributed as much to Ron Rivera as it can Lovie Smith. I feel like, once he is back in place, Jeff Tedford will be working his behind off to get this offense on the right track.

Leslie Frazier has no excuses. He’s been there the whole time, watching the defense make a mockery of itself for three weeks straight. Injuries definitely made things worse against the Atlanta Falcons, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of pass breakups, interceptions, or general passing defense. The performance was hugely improved against Pittsburgh, but the secondary still left much to be desired. Going into this season, the hope seemed to be that an efficient and low-turnover offense would be fine, so long as an elite defense showed up. That elite defense has been nowhere to be found, and Leslie Frazier has to be held accountable for that.

Frazier’s coaching resume mostly has him as a defensive backs coach, defensive coordinator, or head coach. His first chance as a defensive coordinator came in 2003 and 2004 with the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals delivered a pair of disappointing 8-8 seasons during that time. Frazier’s next big opportunity, and easily what he is most known for, was with the Minnesota Vikings. Frazier was the defensive coordinator from 2007 to 2010. He then shifted into a position as interim head coach during 2010, later officially becoming head coach until his departure from the team following the 2013 season.

During his tenure in Minnesota, the Vikings were fairly consistent. When they did well, it was because of two very specific reasons. The first reason, a credit to Leslie Frazier, was a staunch rushing defense. The second was Adrian Peterson. During Frazier’s tenure, he boasted the best rushing defense in the league two years straight in 2007 and 2008. However, the Vikings passing defense seemed to be lacking that entire time. In 2007, the Vikings had the first ranked rushing defense in the league, but they were dead last in passing defense.

The best year in Frazier’s time in Minnesota was 2009, where the Vikings were led on offense by Adrian Peterson and a freshly returned Brett Favre. The entirety of the offense and the rushing defense fought mightily, but a passing defense that ranked a meager 19th in the league played a part in an overtime conference championship loss to the eventual 2009 Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints.

I was as optimistic as anyone coming into the season, and I was not bothered at the time by the hire of Leslie Frazier. Like I suspect most people felt, I put faith in Lovie Smith’s reputation and respect. I expected Smith to make our defense elite, but right now it doesn’t seem to have the pieces or the personnel. With injuries and a matchup against an elite offense, the Buccaneers defense was absolutely exposed.

There’s still plenty of football to be played, and the victory against Pittsburgh puts the Buccaneers right back in the mix. I trust Lovie Smith, and I don’t believe he’ll be going anywhere anytime soon. However, the trademark of the Leslie Frazier defenses scare me. If anyone reading this thinks that my mention of Frazier’s 2007 defense ranking first in the league rushing and last in the league passing sounds like deja vu, that’s because the 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers did the exact… same… thing. It’s not time for people to lose their jobs, but Leslie Frazier needs to be held accountable for the defense.