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Replacing Lovie Smith with Dirk Koetter sure looks good now

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NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired Lovie Smith at the start of this year, there was a lot of skepticism over the move. Smith was a veteran coach who had had a lot of success in the past, he’d built a promising offense, and the defensive struggles could in part be attributed to poor personnel decisions and a lack of draft capital invested on that side of the ball.

Nearly a year later, Dirk Koetter is leading the Bucs to what could be the most successful season in a decade, and what is already a better record than anything Lovie Smith managed to do in Tampa. The Bucs are 7-5 and have more wins than Smith did all of last season, while one more win over the final four weeks would give Koetter as many wins as Smith had in his two years in charge.

Moreover, Koetter has managed to get to seven wins despite a significantly tougher schedule than Lovie Smith faced last season. Football Outsiders ranks the Bucs’ schedule so far as the fourth-toughest in the entire NFL, while they thought Lovie Smith faced the second-easiest schedule in the league in 2015.

There’s a real sense of improvement here, not a mirage caused by an easier schedule, a bit of luck in close games or some other flukes that are unrelated to the team’s quality of play.

Of course, judging Lovie Smith just by his win-loss record is not entirely fair. THe former Bucs head coach got saddled with a disastrous quarterback situation when he took over the head coaching job in 2014 and spent his first two years rebuilding rather than constructing a winning squad.

Jameis Winston’s steady improvement explains part of the offense’s rise, while the defense is significantly more talented this year than last year — and Mike Smith’s approach to defense is not fundamentally different from Lovie Smith’s. Had the Bucs not fired Lovie Smith, it’s not impossible we’d seen similar results today.

Still, given results so far, it’s hard to say the Bucs did the wrong thing in replacing Lovie Smith with Dirk Koetter. The team is playing better, especially (and ironically) on defense, it’s winning more games, and is on track to end up in the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season.