In the beginning, it sounded like Lovie Smith wanted the Buffalo Bills more than they wanted him.
That might not be the case.
On Monday, almost immediately after the Chicago Bears fired him and the Bills dismissed Chan Gailey as head coach, Smith didn’t hide his interest in the Bills’ vacancy.
A Bills contingent of President Russ Brandon, General Manager Buddy Nix, assistant GM Doug Whaley and football administration vice president Jim Overdorf set up shop for an Arizona-based job fair. They also agreed to travel for at least one other candidate.
Smith, eager to meet, flew to Phoenix for them. The Bills interviewed him around lunchtime Friday in Arizona. Two league sources told The News the meeting went well enough to consider Smith a legitimate candidate for the job.
Also in Arizona, the Bills interviewed former Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, current Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton and Oregon Ducks head coach Chip Kelly, whose team won the Fiesta Bowl there Thursday night.
Smith and Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone went to the desert to meet the Bills. The Bills contingent reportedly then went to Colorado to interview Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy on Saturday.
Whether the Bills are done interviewing is uncertain. The team isn’t confirming an interview until each has been completed. There have been no widespread reports of future meetings scheduled.
Coaches participating in this weekend’s wild-card playoff round aren’t permitted to interview until the coming week.
Hot prospects such as Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, Green Bay Packers assistants Winston Moss and Ben McAdoo and Cincinnati Bengals assistants Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson are among those who could have suitors.
Smith would be the easiest sell to the Bills’ disenfranchised fan base.
A BuffaloNews.com online poll asked readers which of the six interviewed candidates would be preferred as the Bills’ next coach. Smith led with 44 percent of the votes Saturday night. Kelly was next at 31 percent. Nobody else had more than 6 percent.
Whisenhunt has gone to a Super Bowl, but his record with Arizona was 45-51 in a notoriously weak division for most of his tenure. Whisenhunt had two winning records in his six seasons there.
Smith went 81-63 in his nine seasons with Chicago, guiding the team to the Super Bowl during the 2006 season. He won two titles in one of the NFL’s nastiest divisions. Two NFC North teams went to the postseason this year, while the 10-6 Bears stayed home – and Smith got fired.
“It’s just tough for me to really figure out right now,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said about Smith’s dismissal on ESPN 1000 in Chicago. “But Lovie is a great coach and I’m sure he’ll get hired pretty quick. No one could do with this team what he’s done the last nine years.”
Mike Ditka, the legendary Bears coach, said on ESPN 1000 that Smith’s firing “really is stupid.”
Smith had only one season worse than 7-9, and that was his rookie year, when he took over for Dick Jauron and went 5-11. The Bills haven’t done better than 7-9 over their previous eight seasons and haven’t won a division title since 1995.
Defense and special teams are Smith’s strengths. The Bears ranked third in points allowed, fifth in yards allowed, eighth in run defense and eighth in pass defense. They were 11th in sacks per pass play and sixth in third-down efficiency.
But Smith drew considerable criticism over the years for the Bears’ offensive shortcomings.
Starting with Smith’s first season, the Bears have ranked 32nd, 29th, 15th, 27th, 26th, 23rd, 30th, 24th and 28th in yardage with myriad offensive coordinators and quarterbacks that have ranged from Kyle Orton to Rex Grossman to Jay Cutler.