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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. Will Bucs Choose Koetter Or Gruden?
With a loss to the New Orleans Saints, who will be gunning for the NFC South division title on Sunday, the Tampa Bay Bucs will end up with a 4-12 record due to five straight losses to end the year.
Win or lose – expect a close game from these Buccaneers.
Why? Because the players have had every incentive to mail it in down the stretch and haven’t.
That bodes well for head coach Dirk Koetter.
His team hasn’t quit on them the way the Buccaneers did for Raheem Morris in 2011, for Greg Schiano in 2013 and perhaps even Lovie Smith in 2015.
The Glazers are taking notice.
Tampa Bay was starting three offensive linemen out of place in Green Bay, and missing starting running back Doug Martin and took the Packers to overtime before losing on the road by six points. Since then, the Bucs have suffered three consecutive losses by three points to Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina. The Bucs were in each of those games until the last minute.
This Bucs team has kept fighting.
Has it been because of the players’ own pride, or is it because they are playing hard for embattled head coach Dirk Koetter? That’s probably something the Glazers are trying to determine right now as they will decide Koetter’s fate next week.
“I am going to say this about Coach Koetter – and this is no knock to anybody I’ve ever played for – head coach-wise, Coach Koetter and Coach [Bob] Stoops are on the same level to me for guys that I’ve played for,” said Bucs Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. “Just for who they are and what they’ve been to me and just how they are as coaches. I love Coach Koetter. I love his family – his family is great people. Every now and then I slip up and call him Dirk and I apologize for that because I don’t want to call any of my coaches by their first name, but Coach Koetter – I love him. That’s all I can say… I will say this. Our coach has all of the support of us, this locker room, everyone around here and Gerald personally. I love Coach, I really do.”
Because of how hard the team has played and the amount of injuries the team has sustained, it is not a foregone conclusion that Koetter will be fired after Sunday’s game.
Unless the Glazers want to pursue former head coach Jon Gruden, offer him the job and he accepts, I don’t necessarily believe Koetter may be fired.
I don’t see a clear-cut upgrade out there aside from Gruden, and perhaps the Glazers don’t either.
Gruden may be putting feelers out there that he wants to coach again, and that his preference would be the Buccaneers, but would he actually pull the trigger and come back to the sidelines after nine years? We’ll have to wait and see. We’ll find out by next week.
And would the Glazers want Gruden back? Despite the victories he produced, Gruden wasn’t the easiest coach to work with the first time around with high-profile spats with former general manager Rich McKay and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. Perhaps they feel Gruden belongs in the Bucs Ring of Honor at the stadium rather than on the sidelines.
Or perhaps the Glazers know that bringing Koetter back after a disappointing 4-12 or 5-11 season would be a very tough sell to the fan base in the offseason and that Raymond James Stadium certainly wouldn’t be more full in 2018 as a result. Heck, even the Stick Carriers are off the Koetter bandwagon.
Gruden’s return would electrify the fan base and likely raise the level of play among the Buccaneers players, too. He’s a master motivator and I have little doubt that he could take the Bucs to the next level. I’m not sure Koetter can.
But if Gruden doesn’t come back to coach in Tampa Bay either because he wasn’t asked, or he said no, then prepare for Year 3 of the Koetter regime.
“Let’s make one thing perfectly clear – these guys have played their asses off in terms of going out and giving the effort that you need to win,” said Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith. “Unfortunately, there [have] been a handful of plays that have not allowed us to do that. We’ve got to find a way to make those plays or coach those guys better.
“It’s unfortunate in terms of how this league is in terms of three or four weeks still to go in the season and they are talking about this and they are talking about that. All it is is talk. That’s what it is and you don’t listen to it because it is just talk. It is just freaking noise. We’ve got to go out and we’ve got to prepare each and every week no matter what is being said outside the building. It is what we do inside the building. These guys have played their tails off and I’m not going to have anybody ever say anything different to this group of guys because that’s what they’ve done. We haven’t won, but they have played hard.”
That’s a fact, and that’s a positive for the “Keep Koetter” cause. But if Koetter does return, it’s highly likely that the Bucs would have to make some changes on the coaching staff, especially on the defensive side of the ball where defensive coordinator Mike Smith and defensive line coach Jay Hayes – and perhaps others – would likely have to fall on the sword for the radical drop in sacks this year and the awful play of Tampa Bay’s defense.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht appears to be returning for at least the 2018 season due to the fact that the Glazers picked up his option for next year, but the decision on whether or not Koetter stays will largely come down to the Glazers, as it does for every head coaching hire. The owners own the team, and ultimately they decide who runs it.
Aside from the team still playing hard, Koetter has another big factor in his favor. Jameis Winston, the team’s franchise quarterback and the most important person at One Buccaneer Place, has played much better since returning from his three-game hiatus when he was resting his injured shoulder.
When Winston was playing while injured in Weeks 6-9 when he played against Arizona, Buffalo, Carolina and New Orleans, he completed 65-of-105 passes (61.9 percent) for 722 yards with three touchdowns, three interceptions and a QB Rating of 79.9. Since returning to the lineup against Green Bay, Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina, Winston has completed 95-of-132 passes (72 percent) for 1,221 yards, with eight touchdowns, two interceptions and a QB rating of 114.5. His 302 yards per game average ranks first in the NFL ahead of Tom Brady (292 ypg).
Winston seemed to have Koetter’s back this week, and discussed what he’s learned in his three years playing for him.
“A lot – I always talk about the situational-type of things of when to protect the football, or when to scramble and when to get down,” Winston said. “Just kind of my development as a true professional has [come] a lot from him and Coach [Mike] Bajakian. As far as terminology and concept-wise, I had great, great coaching at Florida State. But again, it’s a different game. It’s a different game being up here on this level and you will be put in a lot of different situations. Dirk has been here [since] my first year. He came in – then he was the OC – as the head coach, it has been kind of different, but Dirk is the man. I think he has taught me a lot, especially just me playing quarterback. You just don’t understand that relationship in that quarterback room. We spend so much time together – me, him, Coach Bajakian [and] those other quarterbacks – it’s like a family. Everybody has their different characteristics, but at the end of the day we all love each other.”
I don’t know if the 9-7 season a year ago was the anomaly under Koetter, or if the double-digit losing record this year is? I doubt the Glazers do, either.
After two years I don’t know what the Bucs exactly have in Koetter. And again, I doubt the Glazers do, either.
How much will the outcome of Sunday’s game against New Orleans mean to the Glazers as they decide Koetter’s fate? How much will Winston’s recent performances influence their decision to keep Koetter or look elsewhere? How much will Gruden’s supposed interest in the Bucs head-coaching job play a factor?
In the end, I don’t think there’s a clear cut reason to fire Koetter given the injuries and the close losses other than the fact that scoring is down two points from the 22 points per game Tampa Bay put up last year despite more weapons this year. Outside of some game/clock mismanagement, that’s been Koetter’s biggest sin.
If there are some significant changes to the defensive staff – except for linebackers coach Mark Duffner, who has done an admirable job and deserves to stay on – I could see how Koetter could survive for one more year. The Glazers know they have to create some stability and they can’t keep churning through coaches every two years. At the same time, if they don’t feel like they have the right guy it makes sense to move on.
Yet outside of Gruden, I don’t know if there is any sure-fire upgrade over Koetter out there this year. I’ve written about New England’s Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia before, but I can’t say that either would be a guaranteed success as Tampa Bay’s next head coach.
A phone call to Gruden after Sunday’s game (assuming there hasn’t been one already) could ultimately be the determining factor whether Gruden returns or Koetter continues on as head coach 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