It’s time for PewterReport.com’s 2-Point Conversion post-game column, which features two statements, two questions and two predictions based on the latest Bucs game. Tampa Bay lost a heart-breaker in Carolina, 22-19, but it wasn’t due to a lack of effort, as Jameis Winston balled for the Bucs and continued to throw the ball exceptionally well. Before the game, there were reports that former head coach Jon Gruden could return as the Bucs head coach, replacing Dirk Koetter, who could get fired, as Tampa Bay lost its fifth straight game and is now 4-11.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: Gruden Returns In 2018
Notice how this is under the “Big Statement” section rather than under the “Bold Prediction” department?
That’s right. This is a statement, not a prediction anymore.
Now there are national media outlets joining the chorus, and reporting what PewterReport.com has been reporting all year – that former head coach Jon Gruden is preparing to return to coaching and possibly in Tampa Bay. I say “possibly” because Gruden will be in demand – not just in Tampa Bay, but also in Oakland where he has some emotional ties, and potentially also in Dallas where owner Jerry Jones has always been a long-time admirer of Gruden.
PewterReport.com has enough information to state that Gruden’s camp has been exploring possibilities about returning to coaching, going so far as reaching out to former coaches to gauge their interest in either joining his staff or offering referrals or recommendations for his new staff. Tampa Bay is known to be his top preference for four reasons.
Bucs GM Jason Licht with ex-coach Jon Gruden – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
First, is the opportunity to work with 23-year old quarterback Jameis Winston. The one box that Gruden hasn’t checked in his NFL coaching career is developing a young, talented quarterback. The only young QB with a fair amount of talent (sorry, Luke McCown, Tim Rattay and Bruce Gradkowski don’t count) that Gruden coached in Tampa Bay was Chris Simms, who Gruden didn’t even want the Bucs to draft. Gruden has won a Super Bowl, got the big-money contracts, become the Bucs’ all-time winningest coach and been inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor. But Gruden has always been a QB-centric coach and relishes the chance to work with Winston.
Second, is having a better personnel man in place as general manager than Gruden had with Rich McKay and Bruce Allen from 2002-08. In Gruden’s mind, that’s Jason Licht, whose option year was picked up by the Glazers during the summer. Gruden has heaped praise on Licht this year and has done his homework on him. They both have the same agent, so that might help, too. If Gruden indeed replaces Koetter as head coach, don’t be surprised if Licht gets a contract extension, too.
Third, is that Gruden has always been a Buccaneer at heart. That was clear in his Bucs Ring of Honor speech. He grew up with the Bucs when his dad was a running backs coach under John McKay. Gruden still lives in Tampa and would love the opportunity to return to the franchise that fired him in 2008 and bring the Bucs back to the playoffs.
And finally, Gruden will be an empty nester in a year. His youngest son, Jayson, will be a senior in high school in 2018. What’s Gruden going to do – play golf? He has experienced the real itch to coach again this year, and I believe it’s going to get scratched in 2018.
Here are the stories on Gruden (Grumors) that PewterReport.com has reported this year, beginning with the breaking news that he was planning on returning to coaching back in July the day before the start of Bucs training camp:
July 28, 2017 – SR’s Fab 5: Gruden Wants To Coach Again, Likes Bucs’ Playoff Chances
August 2, 2017 – Former Bucs Coach Gruden Misses The Sidelines
October 15, 2017 – With Gruden Lurking, Koetter Needs To Turn The Bucs Around In A Hurry
November 17, 2017 – SR’s Fab 5: What Gruden Could Bring Back To The Bucs
December 8, 2017 – SR’s Fab 5: McDaniels, Patricia, Gruden All Interesting Options For Bucs
December 15, 2017 – SR’s Fab 5: Will Licht Stay? Will Gruden Return To The Bucs?
Gruden’s interest in returning to coaching is not a ploy to get more money from ESPN. This is sincere interest in returning to the sidelines – likely in Tampa Bay. Gruden has seen the changing of the guard at ESPN and the downsizing that has taken place there with highly paid employees getting the axe. Making a reported $6.5 million per year, Gruden is the network’s highest-paid employee and ESPN’s contract with NFL’s Monday Night Football expires in just a few years at 2021.
Former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
With his star power, Gruden could command upwards of $8 million per year in the NFL. For the Bucs that means that he could put another 10,000 seats in the stands to get Raymond James Stadium closer to capacity and that alone would be worth a few millions of dollars.
Sources close to Gruden tell me that at age 54, it’s likely now or never for Gruden to return to the sidelines. Keep in mind that even if there has been discussions about hiring Gruden there is no signed contract between the Glazers and Gruden and there can’t be until two things happen: Dirk Koetter gets fired and the Bucs interview a minority candidate to comply with the league’s Rooney Rule.
That means that even if Gruden gets offered the head coaching position he could still get cold feet and back out as Bill Parcells did in 2002. I just don’t think that’s going to happen.
I suspect Gruden will be named the next head coach in Tampa Bay the first week of January.
STATEMENT 2: Winston Flat Out Balled Today
Many wondered how Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston would follow up what was likely the best game of his young career on Monday Night Football when he completed 27-of-35 passes for 299 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 24-21 loss to Atlanta.
How about a 21-of-27 passing day for 367 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in Carolina?
Just six days after establishing a new career high with a 77.1 percent completion percentage, Winston completed 77.8 percent of his passes against the Panthers. His QB rating of 131.1 was better than last week’s 130.5 and was just short of Winston’s career-best 131.6 QB rating, which he set in 2015 in a five-touchdown performance in a win against Philadelphia.
Bucs WR Bobo Wilson – Photo by: Getty Images
Perhaps more importantly, Winston really elevated the play of those around him. Wide receiver Mike Evans led the Bucs with six catches for 107 yards, including a diving 30-yarder in the fourth quarter.
But it was Winston hitting Chris Godwin for a career-high 98 yards on three receptions, including a personal-best 70-yarder. Winston also hit Freddie Martino twice for 57 yards and Adam Humphries also had three catches for 51 yards. Rookie Bobo Wilson caught his first NFL pass, which went for a touchdown – Winston’s only TD pass of the game. The receivers really came to play for Winston today and it was obvious they were inspired by his play.
“He played damn good, pretty damn good without looking at the tape,” Koetter said. “That guy’s a warrior, man. That guy is a warrior.”
Winston was about to go to war with the officials on the Bucs’ last offensive play after he fumbled for the third time after being sacked. Winston admitted that he fumbled, but maintains that he recovered the ball – not Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, who had one of Carolina’s six sacks. That’s one area of Winston’s game he has to clean up next year.
“The official came right in and signaled Carolina ball right off the bat,” Koetter said. “It took them forever to un-pile them. Jameis told me he had the ball. That’s what I know.”
Winston showed a great deal of passion barking at the officials in the game’s waning moments. While it looked like Winston lost his cool for a moment, the Bucs would win more games if this team had a third of his passion.
“Because I had the ball,” Winston said about him yelling at the officials. “That’s the only reason. We fought hard, but I had the ball. They gave it to him.”
Winston didn’t want to talk about his incredible passing performance on Sunday during post-game interviews, but attributed his better, recent play to an improving shoulder.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Getty Images
“I’m getting healthier every week – that’s all,” Winston said. “I’m healthier. When you are able to be healthy in the pocket it’s a lot different.”
Winston is 0-9 in his last nine starts and is just 2-11 as a starter this year. The Bucs’ last three losses have come by three points in each game, and six of those nine losses have come by less than a touchdown. Just how close are the Bucs to breaking through and turning the corner to have a much better 2018?
“Man, we’ve just got to win,” Winston said. “That’s all that really matters. If we found a way to win then it would be easier for me to give you [an answer] about how far away we are. Right now, we just keep losing. So we need to find a way to win.”
Yes, he has to take better care of the football, but by completing over 64 percent of his passes for over 3,000 yards with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions, Winston is the least of the Bucs problems.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Where Were The Screen Passes? Where Was Barber?
Koetter called a healthy amount of screen passes against Green Bay, Detroit and Atlanta over the last three weeks with a good deal of success to help Tampa Bay’s offensive line, which has had to be revamped due to injuries to starters Ali Marpet and Demar Dotson. But where were the screen passes on Sunday when Winston was under assault from a blitzing Panthers defense?
Carolina had six sacks and eight additional quarterback hits as Winston was often running for his life. So where were the screen passes that would have helped the offensive line and alleviated some of the pressure Winston was under? The Bucs did try to run a couple of screens, but they were snuffed out by the veteran Peppers. But what about some quick wide receiver screens to the flat to help Winston get the ball out of his hands?
Koetter also abandoned the use of running back Peyton Barber for some strange reason. All Barber did was rush 10 times for 42 yards (4.2 avg.) in the first half, including a 34-yard jaunt. Barber finished the game with 51 yards on 13 carries (3.9 avg.).
Bucs RB Peyton Barber – Photo by: Getty Images
After Doug Martin, who was suspended for last week’s game against Atlanta, rushed twice for four yards in the first half, Koetter turned to him, in the second half and we saw Martin finish with seven yards on six carries (1.1 avg.). That was Martin’s second-worst performance of the year, nearly as bad as his eight-carry, seven-yard day at New Orleans back in November.
Why Koetter did this was inexplicable, unless Barber was injured and the team didn’t report it to the media. Koetter has pulled this questionable coaching move before. He started Martin against Detroit despite Barber having over 100 yards rushing at Green Bay the week before. In that game, Martin got the bulk of first half carries, rushing for 26 yards and a touchdown on 10 totes (2.6 avg.) before Barber entered in the second half and rushed for 58 yards on 12 carries (4.8 avg.).
When asked about why Barber didn’t start the game against the Lions, Koetter said that the plan was to start Martin and have Barber get his touches in the second half. I’m assuming that methodology took place again this week with Koetter’s plan being to start Barber and then turn the ball over to Martin in the second half.
Either way, it didn’t work out well. Barber should have gotten 20-plus carries and Martin should have continued to ride the pine. If that had happened, perhaps Barber could have replicated his 23-carry, 102-yard rushing day that he had at Lambeau Field, and that might have changed the outcome of Sunday’s game.
QUESTION 2: What Happened Before Halftime With Koetter’s Clock Management?
The Bucs’ loss to the Panthers didn’t necessarily happen on one play. It wasn’t Pat Murray’s missed 41-yard field goal, nor was it Damiere Byrd’s 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, nor was it Chris Baker’s ill-timed neutral zone infraction penalty. All of those plays certainly didn’t help, and contributed to Tampa Bay’s fifth straight loss.
But the biggest factor in my opinion came in the first half when the Bucs had to settle for three field goals in the red zone.
“Our guys battled hard all day,” Koetter said. “We didn’t make enough big plays ultimately. I got to give them better calls in the red zone. I stunk in the red zone today. We just didn’t get it done.”
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Getty Images
Yes, Koetter did stink in the red zone, and that’s been a recurring theme over the past two years, but in 2017 especially as the Bucs’ points per game is just over 20 points per game. On Sunday, Koetter’s offense scored just 19 points.
The best example of Koetter’s poor red zone play-calling came right before halftime. Trailing 12-6, Winston hit Humphries with a 36-yard pass down to the Carolina 5 with 1:01 left in the first half. After a one-yard run by Barber, Koetter let the clock run all the way down to 18 seconds before calling another running play where Barber lost two yards. Then the Bucs called their second timeout with 13 seconds left.
On third-and-goal from the Carolina 6, Winston threw a pass to tight end Cameron Brate and the Panthers were flagged for defensive holding. That gave Tampa Bay a first-and-goal at the 3-yard line with nine seconds left. The Bucs could only get off one play, which was a Winston incompletion, before having to bring Murray on for a 21-yard field goal with five seconds left.
Instead of having four shots from the 3-yard line – or at least two or three – the Bucs only had one play before having to kick a field goal because Koetter didn’t use all of his timeouts. That was a golden opportunity for the Bucs to take a 13-12 lead at halftime, but Koetter’s poor clock management cost Tampa Bay.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: Bucs Will Finish 4-12 And Koetter Will Be Fired
The Bucs lost their fifth straight game of the season as the Panthers came from behind in Carolina to prevail, 22-19. That will likely cost Koetter his job at the end of the season, especially if the Glazers can lure Gruden back to the franchise.
The Bucs played hard and put up a much better fight than I expected, but I think that was mostly part due to great leaders like Winston, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who had a sack despite a torn biceps, linebacker Lavonte David, who battled a hamstring to lead all tacklers with 11 stops, than it was necessarily wanting to play for Koetter or defensive coordinator Mike Smith.
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Getty Images
“We played hard and we’re doing a lot of great stuff,” Koetter said. “Our defense in that first half was unbelievable. To hold them running the football like we did today, we sacked him twice. What did our defense give up – 13 points in the game? That’s good enough. We give up a special teams touchdown, we turn it over and we lose [the] turnover [margin] by two? The same stuff wins football games every week. It’s the same stuff and we’re coming out on the short end. It’s not an effort issue. It’s not a hustle issue. It’s not a physical issue. But they beat us. They beat us fair and square.”
It wasn’t an effort issue. It wasn’t a hustle issue. Nor was it a physical issue, which means talent. It was a coaching issue on Sunday in Carolina, as Koetter’s poor red zone calls and clock mismanagement didn’t help the Bucs prevail on Christmas Eve. Expect more of the same next Sunday against a highly motivated New Orleans team that is looking to win the NFC South division and secure at least a home playoff game.
I called the Bucs’ 4-12 finish a few weeks ago and wrote about it last week, and am definitely sticking by it. I’m just growing more convinced that Koetter won’t be back next year.
PREDICTION 2: Bucs Will Shift To A 3-4 Defense Next Year
Whether or not Gruden comes to the Bucs next year, or if another coach takes over instead, I would expect the Bucs to shift to a 3-4 defense next year. The defensive line is going to get a major overhaul next year.
Don’t be surprised to see Robert Ayers, Chris Baker, Ryan Russell gone next year, and perhaps Will Clarke and Sealver Siliga, too. Clinton McDonald is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. The Bucs love him, but he’ll be 31 on January 6 and his body has been beaten up the last few years.
I also wouldn’t rule out Tampa Bay trading defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in the offseason if there is a regime change, especially if the new defensive coordinator wants to shift to a 3-4 defense to take advantage of the team’s talent at linebacker. Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David are among the best young linebackers in the league, and rookie Kendell Beckwith shows tremendous potential. Pass rusher Noah Spence, who has spent most of the year on injured reserve this year, is built more like a linebacker at 6-foot-2, 242 pounds than he is a defensive end.
It’s been decades since the Bucs have been a 3-4 defensive team, but my prediction is that they will shift to that front next year on defense.