On Jan. 22, 1996, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Tony Dungy as the team’s sixth head coach in franchise history. During that offseason, the team was coming off of its 13th consecutive losing season (a streak that became an NFL all-time record after Dungy’s first season as head coach in 1996). And here Houston Texans’ fans think they have it bad.
That coaching hire turned the franchise around. Dungy would go on to lead the team to more wins (54) in his six seasons as head coach than Tampa Bay’s previous 11 seasons combined. In 2002, the Bucs fired Tony Dungy and traded two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and $8 million dollars (not joking) for a head coach by the name of Jon Gruden. That year, the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl and the turnaround was complete.
So what magic dust did Tony Dungy use to revitalize a franchise that began its NFL inception by losing twenty-six games in a row (also an NFL all-time record)? The answer is defense. Specifically, a defensive scheme that Dungy picked up foundational elements for while playing defensive back for the Steelers in the 70s. A defense popularized by Dungy himself: the legendary Tampa-2.
Tony Dungy’s Tampa-2 defense didn’t become one of the most well-known schemes in the NFL just because it started in Florida. The Bucs’ defense was ranked in the NFL’s top eight scoring defenses all six years that Dungy coached (top five four times). NFL legends like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, and John Lynch earned their stripes in the Tampa-2. That defense was badass.
And what made that badass Tampa-2 defense a Tampa-2 defense? The short answer is the middle linebacker. The Tampa-2 is a version of the “Cover 2” defensive scheme with one important wrinkle: it asks the middle linebacker to be quick enough to recognize a pass versus a run, and when a pass is coming, drop back deep in the middle of the field between the two safeties and cover a third passing zone.
Easy enough, right? Well, no. Being a middle linebacker in a Tampa-2 system is a tough job. It requires unique athleticism, quick decision-making, power, speed, and communication. Maybe an even tougher job is to coach those middle linebackers. And when Dungy became the head coach of the Buccaneers in ‘96, he knew the perfect man for the job: a tough defensive-minded coach by way of Big Sandy, Texas named Lovie Smith.
And so, Lovie Smith learned and taught that legendary Tampa-2, brought it with him as defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, and eventually used his knowledge of the defense to earn a head coach position with the Chicago Bears.
The Chicago Bears were coming off of losing years in seven of their previous eight seasons when they hired Smith. Like Dungy, Smith righted the ship. Smith indoctrinated players named Brian Urlacher, Peanut Tillman, and Lance Briggs into the ‘Dungy School of Thought’ and the team flourished.
In 2006, Smith became the first black NFL head coach to reach the Super Bowl (ironically, at the same time as his former mentor and fellow black head coach, Tony Dungy). Once again, the Tampa-2 turnaround was complete.
Fast forward to present day, and the 2022 Houston Texans aren’t even close to the same losing streaks as the ‘96 Bucs or the ‘04 Bears. In fact, the Texans have had six winning seasons out of their last 10.
But after the passing of the team’s founding owner, a blown 24-0 first half lead in the playoffs, the hiring and meteoric rise of a former team chaplain, and the trade of a disgruntled, legally-troubled franchise quarterback, any NFL fan will tell you: it sure feels like the Texans are in need of a turnaround.
Enter, once more, the duo of Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith and the Tampa-2 defense. A defensive scheme change might seem an unusual prescription for the maladies of a crumbling franchise, and even last year under Smith’s purview, the Texans went away from the Tampa-2 in the second half of the season, but sometimes it benefits one’s future to take a peek into the past.
And maybe that’s what the Texans path to progression looks like: right up the middle of the field using an antiquated defense that holds a history of team turnarounds. Now, is there a Brian Urlacher, a Derrick Brooks, a Warren Sapp, a Peanut Tillman, or a John Lynch out there for the Boys on Kirby? Maybe, maybe not. Is the Tampa-2 still fully relevant in today’s NFL? Again, maybe, maybe not.
But with a general manager who has acquired loads of draft capital, a head coach steeped in defensive history, and a fan base hungry to fill the seats of NRG Stadium again, maybe there’s just one more turnaround left in Lovie’s bag of magic dust.