Jameis Winston had a strong rookie season, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tripled their victory total from the previous year. Still, it wasn't enough to save coach Lovie Smith's job.
Smith was fired Wednesday night after going 6-10 this season, 8-24 overall in two years running a team that has missed the playoffs eight consecutive years.
The late-night announcement came as a surprise because Smith's job was not considered to be in danger after the Bucs improved from two wins and landing the No. 1 overall draft pick in his first season to rebounding from a slow start to briefly contend for a wild-card berth with a rookie quarterback starting every game.
"This decision was difficult on a variety of levels," Buccaneers Co-Chairman Joel Glazer said in a statement. "I am disappointed that we were not more successful these past few seasons, but we are committed to doing what is necessary to give our fans the winning team they deserve. "
General manager Jason Licht will oversee the search for a new coach. He's scheduled to speak to the media Thursday afternoon about the firing.
Whoever the new coach is, he will be the fourth man to hold the job since the Bucs fired Jon Gruden after the 2008 season. Raheem Morris held the job for three seasons, while Smith's predecessor, Greg Schiano, held it for two seasons, as did Smith. None of those three men posted overall winning records with the Bucs.
While a number of "big name" coaches are available to replace Smith, most speculation centers on Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Koetter's name has been tied to the head coaching opening with the Miami Dolphins as well.
Smith led the Chicago Bears to the NFC title in 2006, when they lost to Indianapolis in the Super Bowl. He was 84-66 in nine seasons with Chicago.
The Bucs showed some improvement this season with Winston joining Andrew Luck and Cam Newton as the only players since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger to throw for 4,000 yards as rookies. But they lost five of their last six games, including the final four to finish last in the NFC South for the fifth straight season.
"I don't think any of us would say that we've met our expectations. We had high hopes when I took over the franchise. You just can't build a program overnight," Smith said earlier this week, reflecting on the progress the team made over two seasons under his guidance.
"You'd like to have a quick fix, but that just wasn't part of the process. When you get to 6-6 in a season, it makes you think that maybe you're a little bit further along and we can get it done. But in the end, we weren't quite there. 'We're not where we want to be and eventually, we're going to get there."
For the first time, the Bucs ranked in the top 10 in total offense and defense. But finishing No. 5 offensively and No. 10 defensively was deceptive. The Bucs struggled to get the ball into the end zone, ranking 20th in points. They were 26th in scoring defense, allowing 24 or more 10 times.
The shortcomings on defense were especially frustrating because that's been Smith's area of expertise as a coach. He took over play-calling responsibilities from defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier this season, but an inconsistent pass rush and constant shuffling of personnel in a leaky secondary contributed to a lack of success.
Nevertheless, Smith reiterated his belief that the team is headed in the right direction.
"Our football team isn't a finished product yet, but I think it's safe to say that we're in pretty good shape going forward with (Winston) leading us, on and off the field," Smith said.
Tampa Bay cornerback Johnthan Banks was sitting courtside Wednesday night at alma mater Mississippi State's home basketball game against Texas A&M when he learned Smith had been fired. Banks starred at his phone for a few minutes before abruptly walking out of the gym.
"I'm just not ready to talk about it," Banks said.