SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. A YEAR LATER, KOETTER MAKING A BIG DIFFERENCE FOR BUCS
We’re back to where we started from a year ago. The New Orleans Saints are coming to town with four games left in the season. Tampa Bay is in position for a playoff run.
The Saints game – at home – is where it all unraveled for Lovie Smith’s Buccaneers. Winners of three of its last four games, Tampa Bay was 6-6 and poised to make a dash to the postseason. That’s when it all fell apart.
Before a near sellout crowd at Raymond James Stadium, Bucs head coach Lovie Smith took exception to a profane pre-game tirade by wide receiver Russell Shepard and kneecapped a team captain in front of the squad at Shepard’s fever pitch, killing any buzz he just generated. The result?
Instead of frothing at the mouth like a pack of wild dogs, the Bucs were spanked by Smith before they took the field and they came out flat against the Saints, trailing 14-0 early in the first quarter. Tampa Bay would lose, 24-17, and that defeat would start a four-game losing skid that ultimately cost Smith his job.
A year later, the Bucs are set to take the field against the Saints before a nearly sold out Raymond James Stadium with four games left. Tampa Bay is better positioned for a postseason run because it enters the game with a 7-5 record thanks to a four-game winning streak, and because it has a much better coach leading the team.
Now you’re seeing why I wanted Koetter to take over this team. Thankfully general manager Jason Licht and the Glazers were of the same opinion.
Not all the Bucs believed in Smith. They all believe in Koetter.
This Tampa Bay team is playing with an edge this season. Koetter coaches with an edge, too.
Koetter doesn’t discourage Shepard’s profanity-ridden pre-game rants. He encourages them.
And Koetter added his own amount of swagger after last week’s comeback win at San Diego when he told his players to be humble in post-game interviews and to “speak softly, but carry a big mother#$%*ing stick!”
The team roared in approval. The Bucs love this guy.
“He’s doing a great job as our head coach,” Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans said. “He’s bringing a certain swagger that everyone around here likes. He understands the players.
“Last year he was the OC, so we saw him more than anybody. It’s good to have him and a second year in this offense. Now we’re a lot more familiar with this offense. It’s just been going good for us all around and hopefully we continue to do well.”
Doing well would mean beating the Saints on Sunday and maintaining at least a partial lead in the NFC South as the Bucs inches closer to a winning season and a possible playoff berth. The loss to New Orleans this time last year was a bitter pill for Tampa Bay to swallow.
“I remember I had an opportunity to get a big first down, and I didn’t get it,” Evans said. “That’s what I remember most. It was the fourth quarter and we were driving to score, you know I dropped it, I guess. Yeah it was a drop, it was a catchable pass, I dropped it, and that’s what I remember most about that game.”
The loss to the Saints was more painful for Bucs nose tackle Akeem Spence – literally.
“The first thing I remember was getting hurt that game because that was my last game of the year,” said Spence, who succumbed to an ankle injury that kept him out of the final three games of the season. “We just came out flat. The Saints jumped on us early and we weren’t able to recover on defense or offense.”
The loss to the Saints was painful in a different way for middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, who began his four-game suspension for PED use by missing the New Orleans game.
“My impression of that game was ‘Damn, I messed up and I can’t play,’” Alexander said. “I watched the game on TV – I watched every game on TV, praying for the team and the guys they did pretty good. But you know, we’ve got to finish all our games. We’ve got to win them all. We’re on a whole new year now, and that’s the goal – to win them all.”
This year, Alexander, who leads the Bucs with 97 tackles, will be on the field to take on Drew Brees and the Saints’ potent offense, and that will make a big difference.
“When Kwon went down last year it hurt us because he’s one of the best players on our team,” Evans said. “He’s here now, though, so we’ll see what happens Sunday.”
The Bucs aren’t taking Brees and the Saints lightly, especially considering that New Orleans is 8-2 vs. Tampa Bay over the last 10 games, and has won the last five games at Raymond James Stadium, but they are expecting a different outcome this year.
“We have some better wins under our belt [this year as opposed to last year],” Shepard said. “I mean we played and beat some guys who I wouldn’t be surprised if they played in the Super Bowl in a year. Special teams is playing amazing this year, the offense is doing a great job, and the defense has definitely turned around. I feel a different vibe this year than last year when we were going on that four-game skid.”
There is a different vibe thanks to a different head coach.
Koetter’s preseason message to the team was to play loose, have fun and show the league just how good these Buccaneers are. It took awhile – a humbling 3-5 start that tested the fans’ patience – but they are doing just that when it matters the most.
Koetter’s biggest offseason move – hiring defensive coordinator Mike Smith – took awhile to pay off, but this Smith’s defense has proven to be much better than the other Smith’s. With four games left, the 2016 Tampa Bay defense has already matched last year’s interception (11) and defensive touchdown (three) production, and is just nine sacks away from tying last year’s mark of 38.
More importantly, since Week 10, the Bucs defense ranks first in points per game, takeaways and opposing QB passer rating. The defense is playing much better now than it was a year ago when it allowed an average of 29.75 points per game over the last four weeks of the season en route to a 6-10 season.
A year ago, the loss to the Saints started the wheels in motion that ultimately led to Koetter taking over in Tampa Bay. But despite the set of familiar circumstances with the New Orleans coming to town to begin a four-game stretch that will determine if the Bucs finish 7-9, 11-5 or somewhere in between, Koetter isn’t looking back on what’s transpired. He’s only looking forward.
“Kind of similar for who? Not for me, not similar for me at all, so I don’t live in the past like that,” Koetter said. “We’ve got no reason to visit anything except what’s happening right now. We don’t have any reason to go – I’m not saying [the players] might not, or they might. Some players might, but in my opinion, there’s no similarities [to last season].”
A win on Sunday against the Saints would definitely chart a new course for the Buccaneers in the month of December through the end of the regular season where Tampa Bay has been 7-31 from 2008-15 during that timeframe. It would also be a milestone for Koetter, who with eight wins would be the second-most successful rookie head coach in Tampa Bay history, passing Greg Schiano.
Regular Season Records of Rookie Head Coaches In Tampa Bay 12-4 – Jon Gruden – 2002 7-5 – Dirk Koetter – 2016* 7-9 – Greg Schiano – 2012 6-10 – Tony Dungy – 1996 5-11 – Sam Wyche – 1992 4-12 – Ray Perkins – 1987 3-13 – Raheem Morris – 2009 3-13 – Richard Williamson – 1991 2-14 – Lovie Smith – 2014 2-14 – Leeman Bennett – 1985 0-14 – John McKay – 1976
Eight wins would also guarantee the Bucs of their first non-losing season since the team finished 10-6 in 2010. An 8-5 record would also put Tampa Bay three games above .500. The highest the Bucs have previously been above .500 over the past six years was by two games when the team went 6-4 under Schiano in 2012.
A victory over the Saints would also give Tampa Bay its first five-game winning streak since 2002 – and a feat accomplished only four other times in franchise history (1979, 1997, 1999 and 2002). A win on Sunday and Koetter he ties Lovie Smith’s win total in Tampa Bay over a two-year period – and with three games left to increase his win total.
In just his first season in Tampa Bay, Koetter has already surpassed Richard Williamson’s four wins as head coach from 1990-91 and Leeman Bennett’s four wins as head coach from 1985-86. By next year Koetter should eclipse Schiano’s 11 wins in Tampa Bay, Ray Perkins’ 13 wins and possibly Raheem Morris’ 17 victories.
There’s a lot riding on Sunday against the Saints both for Koetter and his Buccaneers. All that’s assured thus far is a seven-win season that will only feel slightly better than last year’s 6-10 mark if another four-game collapse takes place.
But I don’t think that’s going to happen this year.
I don’t think Koetter will let that happen.
This is what I envisioned when I wanted Koetter to take over in Tampa Bay.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org