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In 2019, Illinois Football won six games. It was the culmination of what Lovie Smith was supposed to have built to after three seasons as Illinois head coach in which he’d gone a combined 9-27. I talk about this instead of 2020 because college football happened in the pandemic in the same way that anything important happened in the pandemic: a loosely organized way that makes it easy for excuses to take root. Let’s cut the excuses and go back to what was supposed to be the crowning year — the one that was worth all the pain.
Illinois upset No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23 in a game in which they forced three turnovers and only turned it over once themselves. They held on to beat Michigan State 37-34 in a game in which they forced four turnovers and the Spartans only created two. Those two wins disguised what was a typical season for the Illini under Smith, giving them a berth into the “Redbox Bowl,” whatever that is. Over the course of the season, Smith’s Illini defense would give up a tremendous amount of yardage, would lose to Eastern Michigan at home, and would allow 34 or more points five times, including to California in their bowl game.
After the Wisconsin win, Smith preened in a way that I think will sound familiar to a lot of Texans fans:
If you look at things through this certain warped perspective that I simultaneously admire and want to criticize, everything always looks okay in football coach speak. Your guys are always one win away from changing everything, and the development is always about to spark something incredible.
While VODs of Smith’s Tampa pressers are a little harder to come by these days — 2015 was an eternity ago in terms of data storage — I think this quote from the presser before his firing is pretty telling of how things were left in Tampa:
Smith’s Bears defenses were amazing, but if 2021 football is the present, football in 2012 was The Renaissance. He also stacked those teams with a ton of deserving Hall of Fame and Hall of Very Good caliber players like Brian Urlacher, Peanut Tillman, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, and so on. The Tampa 2 defense has fallen out of vogue — though I’d argue the Cover-3 Seahawks scheme that replaced it as vogue isn’t really all that great either — and Lovie hasn’t really evolved what he does with those times.
It’s hard for me to really communicate to you the perspective I get deep-diving Smith’s Illinois years because I can give you tidbits, and your inclination will be to say “okay, but that happened one time.” Trust me when I tell you that there were times that college kids were getting beat by better college kids, but also that there were a ton of schematic breakdowns along these lines:
When teams got to the red zone against Lovie’s defenses, they were able to effectively move the ball horizontally. The Cal team that we’re talking about here had a starting quarterback with a 60.9 percent completion rate — they finished 95th in offensive SP+ per ESPN’s Bill Connelly. This is not Alabama, and not the Jared Goff Bears. This was a fair fight. And Lovie’s defense just kept finding themselves in quandry after quandry.
Look at the situation this corner found himself in. He can handle the tight end underneath, or he can let the wide receiver go over the top. Both linebackers eat this fake. (This is familiar to you Texans fans, I’m sure.) The scheme has won so dramatically over the defense that either throw is successful. This is a big third-and-short in the biggest game in Illinois football’s tenure with Smith. It was easy pickings.
Move beyond the scheme and listen to the man talk — again, I absorbed a lot of pressers trying to find out how he reacts to things — and it’s just that same old 2020 Bill O’Brien brand stuff. Listen to him talk after the Eastern Michigan loss:
Lovie is as steady as they come, but that comes with a learned helplessness that has infected him the same way as it infected O’Brien about the running game in his final days as Texans coach. He’s not going to tell you it isn’t a problem, and he’s not going to not work hard to fix it, but at a certain point it feels like the zest for this was beaten out of him. If you can beat the scheme he’s been running for umpteen years and his guys can’t beat yours one-on-one? Well, tip your cap to ’em. They were the better team that day. And they often are.
When I listed ambition as a trait I was looking for in my head coach, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the kind that David Culley brings. I want someone who is able and unafraid to make mistakes, understand why they made mistakes, and create new solutions to those problems next time. But I have to admit that Culley’s actual enthusiasm for his job is at least fresh and interesting when you compare it to O’Briens Grumpy Dwarf. Lovie is more of a Sleepy Dwarf to me, he’s seen all that he’s wanted to see and the idea of learning something new feels beyond him in his recent roles.
Now, that said, I think a reason for optimism for Lovie as Texans defensive coordinator is that, well, he is finally only a defensive coordinator. Outside of a year off in 2013, Smith has been a head coach somewhere in every season since 2004. I’m open to the idea with less on his plate, he might have some space to grow a little. A lot of head coaches learn or reconsider things only when they have a break from the daily intrusion on their space. Maybe de-elevating to a defensive coordinator means Lovie can get a little more specific on the why of his scheme fails and innovate a little bit. It feels like grasping for straws, but at least it’s a sensible reason as to how we could look back in eight months and see the team off to a good start.
Last year’s Texans finished dead last in the NFL in turnovers with nine. They were one of just two teams since 2002 to finish with less than 10. (The 2018 49ers had seven.) Meanwhile, in college, Lovie’s defense was pretty much all about how many turnovers they could force. The 2019 team forced 19 fumbles and recovered 16 of them — remarkably lucky by the standards of how we know a random ball bounces. They also picked off 12 balls. In 2018, they forced nine fumbles and recovered five. They also allowed six of their nine Big 10 opponents to drop at least 46 points on them.
The Texans don’t have a lot of game-breaking talent to begin with — they’d kill to have that 2015 Bucs squad that Lovie failed with — and all the public signs are pointing towards a divorce with J.J. Watt, the best player on the defense by far. While that will free up some cap space, you don’t just find J.J. Watt replacements in free agency. You find players that, largely, for one reason or another, teams don’t want to commit to. Assuming they continue to sit on Deshaun Watson’s trade demands, they won’t pick until the third round. The building blocks you’d need to create the kind of talent the Bears had on defense are lacking.
Given how much Lovie’s defenses have relied on winning on talent, this looks like a marriage that makes no sense for either side. The Texans can’t provide him with turnover-forcing talent, and Lovie can’t scheme the Texans into the kind of 20th-place defensive finish they need to threaten the playoffs in the event Watson is here and dealing. Maybe he’s got more juice than I think he does — and as I’ve mentioned, I would dearly love for the Texans to make me start eating some skepticism — but from where this franchise sits now it’s hard to connect the dots in a way that makes me excited about this move.
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