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. KEEP THE FAITH IN LICHT AND KOETTER
After losing two winnable games at home to Los Angeles and Oakland – mostly due to coaching mistakes – and a primetime game against NFC South-leading Atlanta on Thursday Night Football – mostly due to a lack of available talent, I was prepared to let both Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht have it after the Bucs fell to 3-5 at the midway point of the 2016 season.
But I’m not going to.
With each passing year, each losing season – and 2016 seems to be heading towards another year with a losing record and without a trip to the playoffs – it gets harder, right? After eight years without making the postseason you want the losing to stop – now. Without a winning record in five years you want to see the Bucs win again – now.
You see yesterday’s heroes like John Lynch and Mike Alstott, two recent inductees into the Bucs Ring of Honor, with thinning hair in their 40s. You see Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, also in his 40s, with his graying hair.
It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It’s been too long.
The Bucs’ glory days seem further and further away – because they are.
Dads tell their own kids to root for the Bucs and not to root for the Seahawks, the Broncos, the Patriots – or heaven forbid, the Panthers. Only to hear, “But Dad, the Bucs are losers, and this team has Richard Sherman.” Or to hear, “The Bucs are losers, and this team has Gronk.” Or “I always play with the Broncos on Madden because of Von Miller.”
You want to win so bad that disgust is an easy, go-to emotion right now when it doesn’t happen. It’s hard to keep the faith. It’s hard to be patient when losing smacks you in the face over and over again.
The losing doesn’t numb you, although you wish it would.
It hurts. It stings. It bites.
Fans don’t want to hear, “Be patient.”
Patience runs out after so long, and it’s been far too long for Bucs fans and ownership that are longing for a return to winning football – let alone consistent winning that would usher in a new era of glory days.
So I’ll be the bad guy here.
Yet I’ll be what might be the lone sane voice in a growing angry mob of discontent in Tampa Bay.
I’ll be the guy that says to be patient. Be patient with Licht and be patient with Koetter.
Be Gus Bradley patient.
Unless this team bottoms out 4-12 or worse, give Licht and Koetter three more years, and I’m not just talking to you, Bucs fans.
I’m talking to you, Glazers.
Sure, Bradley will likely get fired after his fourth season as Jacksonville has an incredibly disappointing 12-38 (.240) record, and rightfully so. But Bradley has been given time and a fair shake with the Jaguars. He is well liked by his players, got the chance to draft a franchise-caliber quarterback with a top-5 pick, and he’s had four drafts to stockpile the roster.
And Bradley has had an owner that spent a ton of money and ramped up heavy in free agency this year after a 5-11 season in 2015, expecting this year to be the breakthrough year in Jacksonville. Instead, the Jags are 2-6, and I’d like the Bucs’ chances of beating them in a close game like they did last year in a 38-31 win at Raymond James Stadium.
That was one of three home wins Tampa Bay has enjoyed in the last three years by the way.
But this isn’t about being better than the Jaguars, is it?
This is about being better than the Saints, the Panthers and the Falcons. This is about becoming a team that wins 10 games or more each year and being better than the Seahawks, the Broncos and the Patriots.
Past personnel decisions have absolutely haunted the Buccaneers (see Fab 3), and the team has a thinner-than-expected core of talented players as a result. But is Licht better than the last two general managers, Mark Dominik and Bruce Allen when it comes to the NFL Draft, which is the best and most reliable way of adding talent to a team’s roster? Absolutely.
NFL general managers are largely based on their ability to hit on first-round draft picks. Allen’s initial first-round choices in 2004 and ’05 – with help from head coach Jon Gruden – were wide receiver Michael Clayton and running back Carnell Williams. Both had successful rookie seasons, but fame and complacency sacked Clayton, who never improved, and injuries ruined Williams’ once-promising NFL career.
Guard Davin Joseph was the lone Pro Bowl player that Allen selected in five drafts, which is an abysmal record, and that was followed by the drafting of defensive end Gaines Adams in 2007, a bust that was traded two and a half years later. The best player that Allen and Gruden drafted was cornerback Aqib Talib, but he had the most amount of success after leaving Tampa Bay and turned into a Super Bowl champion and Pro Bowler. Talib was traded away due to character issues.
Dominik was more successful with the selection of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in 2010 and running back Doug Martin at the end of the first round in 2012. But Dominik whiffed on safety Mark Barron with the seventh overall pick in 2012, and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a first-rounder in 2011. Barron and Clayborn are NFL starters for Los Angeles and Atlanta, respectively, but have played more like mid-round picks rather than first-rounders.
Neither has Pro Bowl-caliber talent that you would expect from a player drafted in the first round.
Dominik’s biggest first-round mistake proved to be his first – the selection of quarterback Josh Freeman in 2009. After a promising 2010 season in leading the Bucs to a 10-6 record while throwing 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions, Freeman threw 22 picks the following year. He had a decent rebound season in 2012 with a franchise-record 27 touchdown passes and 4,065 passing yards under Greg Schiano before completely falling apart in 2013. Freeman was released mid-season and was out of the league two years later.
Of course, Dominik was also in charge of hiring Schiano in 2012 after Raheem Morris was fired. Schiano wasn’t widely liked or trusted by the players, which proved to be his undoing, and he was fired after just two years.
Licht was hired by head coach Lovie Smith, who lasted just two years before a dismal 2-14 showing in 2014, and a not-good-enough record of 6-10 last year led to his abrupt firing. Smith was respected by his players, but they didn’t respond to his complacent coaching style and didn’t believe in or like his vanilla, predictable defense.
Licht’s first-round picks include wide receiver Mike Evans, who is on pace for his first Pro Bowl in 2016, quarterback Jameis Winston, who made the Pro Bowl after a 4,000-yard passing season as a rookie, and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who has earned a starting role during his rookie season. Drafting two Pro Bowlers in your first two drafts is quite a start to any general manager’s career.
Finding a promising, young franchise quarterback in Winston is Licht’s signature accomplishment, which is key for a team that tried and failed to find such a player in the first round for decades before with the likes of Vinny Testaverde, Trent Dilfer and Freeman.
Let’s not forget that Licht has also been instrumental in making sure Pro Bowlers Martin, McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David were re-signed by Tampa Bay. Keeping good talent is just as important as getting it in the first place.
Licht also traded for aging guard Logan Mankins, who made the Pro Bowl after the 2015, which was his final NFL season.
Licht has drafted promising starters in middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and offensive linemen Kevin Pamphile, Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet, too. Kicker Roberto Aguayo is also a starter, but the jury is out on whether he’ll be successful or not. Rookie defensive end Noah Spence is a part-time contributor on defense, while running back Charles Sims is a part-time contributor on offense.
Out of Licht’s 20 draft choices, 13 picks remain, which is a normal number considering that around 50 percent of any team’s first-round picks end up being hits, while the chances on hitting on second-rounders is around a 40-60 proposition. The numbers drop to 30-70 in the third round in terms of these players winding up as starters or being signed to a second contract, and slips to 20-80 in the fourth. From the fifth to seventh rounds, the chances of a team hitting on a draft pick are just 12 percent.
Licht’s draft record is far from perfect, evidenced by the miss on 2014 second-round pick tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and the shaky selection of Aguayo with a second-rounder this year.
Hitting on free agents is an even trickier proposition. It’s about a 25 percent success rate across the NFL. Licht has publicly admitted he favors building a team through the draft rather than free agency. Privately you can tell that he despises free agency because of its high cost to ownership and the organization’s salary cap and the success rate – or lack thereof.
Free agency is nothing more than a necessary evil. Poor drafting leads to holes on rosters and teams need free agents to try to fill them until those positions can be addressed again in the next draft. Licht has had to turn to free agency more than he’d hoped for due to inheriting a team that lacked a lot of talent from previous regimes.
Remember, the Bucs only had three homegrown All-Pros on their roster in McCoy, Martin and David when Licht arrived in 2014 – and no franchise quarterback.
Fans also demand that teams are active in free agency because of their desire to see their franchise get better as fast as possible. Not being active in free agency causes some fans to grumble that the team doesn’t care about winning – despite the incredibly low success rate.
Licht also had a hand in hiring Koetter as offensive coordinator last year as he helped guide the Bucs offense past the 6,000-yard mark and a top 5 ranking in the NFL for the first time in franchise history. When Smith was fired he wisely promoted Koetter to head coach.
Koetter is halfway through his rookie season as a head coach and he deserves more time and a longer leash than a veteran coach like Smith did.
Koetter deserves more time because this team is firmly and completely behind him.
“I like Dirk as a person and a coach,” Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson said. “He keeps things loose around here and does a great job of putting in game plans each week. I don’t think we as players have done a great job of protecting him, backing him up and making him look good. He’s doing his job and he’s doing it well.
“That’s this business, man. Coaches coach and players play. You need the players to go out and perform to make the coaches look good. I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job for him. A lot of guys really respect him around here.”
Tampa Bay nose tackle Clinton McDonald was also eager to give high praise to Koetter.
“He’s not handling this situation like a rookie coach,” McDonald said. “He’s handling it like a veteran coach. He’s been great. He’s taking care of business and trying to get us on the right track. We have to do a better job of listening to the things he’s saying so we can be more effective on the field.”
I’ve also asked several Bucs off the record if they still believe in Koetter and they do. Half a season in, and this team believes in Koetter more than it ever did in the two years of either Schiano or Smith. There’s something to be said for that.
“I think he’s done a great job,” Bucs tight end Brandon Myers said. “I think he’s a great coach and he’s obviously got more things on his plate this year, but that comes with the territory. I think he also has a good group of coaches around him. We have a new scheme on defense and it’s going to take some time to get it going the right way. I think some fans are freaking out a little bit, but he’s not the kind of coach that is going to panic. He’s going to stay the course. We have a lot of faith in him.
“Dirk has come out and pointed the finger at himself after losses – even though it’s not all on him. It’s on us as players. He leads from the front and that’s the type of coach he is. He gets a lot of respect in this locker room for being the first one up there to take bullets.”
The arrival of a proven defensive coordinator in Mike Smith and coming off a season in which the Bucs tripled their win total and placed five players in the Pro Bowl raised expectations for 2016 – perhaps prematurely.
A rash of key injuries and losing winnable games with some questionable decisions by a rookie head coach and some poor execution from the players with games on the line has the team’s record at 3-5 instead of the 5-3 that I expected at this point of the season.
Let’s see how Koetter grows as a head coach over the second half of this season – and then let’s give him the next three years.
I know that’s a lot to ask, especially if the Bucs don’t show some improvement with at least a 7-9 record this year. But the only thing that’s going to allow this team to grow is continuity.
That’s right. I’m the guy that was leading the charge for the Glazers to fire the last two head coaches after just a two-year term. Now I’m asking for continuity.
But Schiano and Smith never won over the entire locker room during their stay in Tampa Bay. Koetter has, and he should be afforded the chance to get the Bucs turned around on his watch as long as the team remains in his corner. Continuing his tell-it-like-it-is policy with players and keeping the Bucs offense humming will only help his cause.
It’s time for Smith to tweak his defense, apply more pressure and dial up some better coverages to help out Koetter’s offense on Sundays.
In just three years Licht has already outperformed his predecessors in the talent acquisition department, and he found a franchise quarterback in Winston that Koetter is successfully developing. The teams that have the most success in the NFL are the ones that keep the great quarterbacks in the same system for continuity’s sake.
That’s happening in Tampa Bay. It’s just going to take some more time – and some more good drafts.
I’ll continue to praise the good personnel moves and criticize the bad ones, and hail the coaching in the wins and offer critiques in the losses. But I’m going to keep the faith in Licht and Koetter until they give me firm, valid reasons over a good period of time not to.
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: email@example.com