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. PLAYING FOR KOETTER IS FUN, AND THAT’S THE WAY HE WANTS IT
Ask the Buccaneers offensive players what it’s like to play for offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and they’ll sum it up in one word.
Sure, Tampa Bay’s offense has been a huge success this year and ranks ninth in the NFL, averaging 368.3 yards per game.
The Bucs have the league’s third-best rushing attack, averaging 141.3 yards per contest. Running back Doug Martin looks like a rookie again and is second in the NFL in rushing with 1,038 yards and four total touchdowns.
Tampa Bay scored a huge hit with quarterback Jameis Winston, the first overall pick in in the 2015 NFL Draft. The Florida State product is the leading candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
The team’s revamped offensive line, which features new starters across the board except at left guard where team captain Logan Mankins is entrenched, has provided much better pass protection this year and opened more running lanes for Martin.
Success is fun, but so is playing for a coach who preaches having fun.
“It’s easy to play for a guy like Dirk,” Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans said. “He’s a fun guy to be around. When he demands something we’re going to do it because he’s a good guy. He calls great plays and he believes in us. He’s easy to play for. It’s fun talking with him and listening to him. As a coach he’s not boring. He’s fun. I guess that helps. He makes football fun.”
The charismatic Koetter laughed when told that the players appreciate his sense of humor and desire to lighten the mood around One Buccaneer Place.
“Some days it’s fun,” Koetter laughed. “I do try to keep it fun. Football is a game number one. These guys all started playing the game when they were young because it was fun. We sometimes forget that because now we do it for a living and it’s a business.”
Before the Bucs had their initial first down or first touchdown of the season Koetter was making football fun in the offensive meetings and on the practice field. There weren’t many smiles in a dismal 2014 season in which Tampa Bay didn’t have a true offensive coordinator after Jeff Tedford suffered a heart condition in the preseason and had to take a medical leave before resigning.
The Bucs finished the season 2-14, largely due to an offense that was ranked 30th in the league, averaging 292 yards per game and 17.3 points per game, which ranked 29th. This year, Tampa Bay is averaging 75 more yards per game and five more points per game with Koetter at the helm.
Koetter was dismissed along with the rest of the Falcons staff when Mike Smith was fired in January and quickly picked up by the Buccaneers, who had faced his offense for three years in Atlanta. Even before he drafted Winston with the first overall pick Bucs general manager Jason Licht hailed Koetter’s arrival as the most significant addition of the offseason.
It didn’t take long for Tampa Bay’s players to realize that Koetter would make a significant difference on offense. The tight end position would no longer be ignored in the passing game. The Bucs running backs would also be utilized in the passing game with screen passes and wheel routes. Tampa Bay would both run and pass on first down and the play-calling would no longer be predictable.
“You could tell from the moment we brought him in the kind of impact he was going to have on our team,” Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon said. “You’re seeing the results right now. We’re playing really well. The coaches coach and the players play, but there is something to be said about the job he’s done. He’s done a great job of calling up the plays at the right time and the right situations. As an offense we’re executing better, but a lot of it is him.”
Tampa Bay’s offensive players have been having fun on Sundays this year as the team has more than doubled its win total from a year ago and is still in position to claim a Wild Card playoff berth with a 5-6 record. Winning on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium against the 6-5 Falcons, Koetter’s former team, and is a must in order for that to remain a possibility.
In order for that to happen Koetter’s offense will have to rebound from a disappointing 12-point output in a loss at Indianapolis last week.
“It’s must. It’s must,” Koetter said. “We’ve been executing at a pretty good level, we just didn’t play the way we’ve been playing. When you look back on film and see the opportunities we’ve missed – and it’s taking nothing away from the Colts, they beat us fair and square. We’ve been sort of ascending on offense and we definitely plateaued a little bit. Coach [Lovie Smith] made it crystal clear to the guys where we are at going into this game. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure it out. This is a big game.”
The Bucs have been meeting all week to figure out how to beat the Falcons like they did in Atlanta, 23-20, in overtime earlier this year. As Koetter puts together his play-call sheet for Sunday he is making sure the game prep is full of laughs Monday through Saturday, too.
“When you get to the NFL we are in meetings forever,” Koetter said. “We meet with those quarterbacks for three hours a day. All of our guys are willing listeners and willing learners, but I can’t sit through a three-hour lecture myself. When you have coaches up there it can sound like the same old “blah, blah, blah.’
“So where we can, we put unique things into our power point presentations. We have a guest coach – which is a player – every Friday where we put up a picture of a guy and he has to come up and explain something in front of the team. We sometimes take liberties with pictures and we sometimes put our guy’s head with another guy’s body. If there is an opportunity to get these guys to smile I think that’s good.”
The old football cliché about players willing to run through walls for their coach definitely applies to Koetter. The man is absolutely loved and adored by his players and you’re seeing the results of their strong bond on the field and on the scoreboard.
“Dirk means well and he’s so dedicated,” Dye said. “He’s got a game plan and he’s going to go with it and attack it. He attacks everything with a passion. He’s got a great scheme and he gets the ball out fast to our playmakers. It’s a great offense to be in and Dirk is a great guy. He just makes it fun around here.”
Funny pictures of the Bucs players make offensive position and team meetings fun, and the team also has its share of fun on the practice field, too.
“There is always weird stuff happening on the practice field that you can make light of,” Koetter said. “If something is funny, the players are going to laugh. For you, as a coach, to ignore that makes no sense. You just have to roll with it.
“Now sometimes I have to turn my head away if I’m laughing because maybe it’s not the right time to laugh. Hey, we’re together a lot. When you think about how many grown men we have that are together a lot – starting early in the morning and sometimes going late – you have to try to keep it light to keep their attention.”
Despite having such a young football team with as many as five rookies on the field at one time on the offensive side of the ball, Koetter appreciates the business-like approach the players have.
“The only time that having fun can be a problem is when guys don’t know when it’s time to work and time to have fun,” Koetter said. “We really don’t have that problem, though. I try to give them a little bit of leeway on that. I try to keep it light.
“Your job, my job or anyone’s job – it is drudgery if you are looking at your watch, saying, ‘When’s quitting time?’”
With the gregarious and charming Koetter in place leading the offense this spring OTAs and mini-camps were fun. Training camp was fun in the summer. Putting up 31 points on offense against Jacksonville and 38 points on offense in Philadelphia was fun this fall.
“Dirk makes things fun,” Glennon said. “Our meetings are fun with him. He does a great job of that. He’s got the right personality for the job. Not only is he good with the X’s and O’s, he does a great job of relating to the players. He’ll poke fun at guys in meetings and keeps your attention – keeps it light. His personality fits that mold. He’s the right man for the job and he’s really helping us out. It’s fun around here.”
FAB 2. KOETTER’S LOVE OF EXPLOSIVES
Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has a love for explosives – and I’m not talking about the kind that blew off the fingers of Bucs cornerback C.J. Wilson or New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul on the Fourth of July.
The kinds of fireworks Koetter likes are the kind on the field that helps light up the scoreboard for his offense.
“He mentions the word “explosives” all the time,” Bucs rookie wide receiver Donteea Dye said. “That’s his word and that’s part of our game as receivers, and that’s a big part of our offense. If you get a lot of explosives you get a win.”
Behind turnovers, nothing produces more wins for a team than explosive plays, Koetter explained during his press conference on Wednesday when answering a question about the importance of the QB rating.
“Yeah, it is [important],” Koetter said about the QB rating system. “In fact it ranks about number nine as far as most important things. It’s about number nine as far as winning and losing football. I wish I could explain why, but one of those guys that is way smarter than me figures out the order. It starts with turnovers, number one. Number two is explosive plays and I’m not going to go through them all, so don’t ask me. Three, four, five, six, seven, eight, number nine – passer rating.
“I tell our guys passer rating is a team thing. We drop a pass and it hurts our passer rating. We throw an interception, tipped ball, hurts our passer rating. [We] make a great catch did like [Charles Sims] in Philly for a touchdown, it helps your passer rating. Yeah, it’s important. It’s number nine.”
Let’s focus on number two – explosives – because the most important element of winning football games – eliminating or reducing turnovers is a given. So what exactly are explosive plays by Koetter’s definition?
“Those same guys that figured out the 10 ways to win – I copied it from them,” Koetter said. “To me, explosive plays are 12-yard runs and 16-yard passes. The NFL uses 20-yard passes, but somebody way smarter than me figured out the correlation to winning is 12-yard runs and 16-yard passes.”
To date, the Buccaneers have had 34 runs of 10 yards or more through 11 games – 28 of those runs are 12 yards or more, which fit Koetter’s definition. Running back Doug Martin has ripped off 25 runs of 10 yards or more, including 11 runs of 20 yards or more. Tampa Bay has had five runs of 49 yards or more, including four by Martin, this year.
Last year, the Bucs had 34 runs of 10 yards or more the entire season. Six were runs by former quarterback Josh McCown and another was by quarterback Mike Glennon. Thirteen of those runs didn’t meet Koetter’s threshold of 12 yards or more for explosive plays.
Where Tampa Bay’s run game failed last year was in runs longer than 10 yards. The Bucs had just eight runs of 20 yards or more in 2014, including four longer than 30 yards. Only two of those runs traveled 49 yards or longer.
With five games remaining in the 2015 campaign, Tampa Bay’s running game has already equaled the number of explosive runs by the NFL’s definition and exceeded it by Koetter’s standard. The Bucs have also exceeded last year’s big-play runs over 20 yards by three carries with over a quarter of the season left.
The Buccaneers public relations department reports that the team has already had 39 passing plays this year that have traveled at least 20 yards – which is four yards longer than Koetter’s definition of explosive plays. Last year the Bucs had 53 passing plays of 20 yards or longer and the team is on pace to hit 56 long passing plays this year.
“The way Coach Koetter runs his offense is the way he runs it, and it’s amazing,” Bucs rookie quarterback Jameis Winston said. “We see the explosiveness that we can have and we see the good things we can do.
“There’s always an opportunity for an explosive play. My main job is just getting [the ball] out of my hands and into a better athlete’s hands.”
Last year’s Bucs offense, which was under the direction of a novice play-caller in quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo, who filled in for ailing offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford. The offense was one-dimensional and wide receiver-driven, and the running backs and tight ends were afterthoughts in the offense.
Running backs Bobby Rainey (33 catches), Charles Sims (19 catches) and Doug Martin (13 catches) totaled 65 receptions for 569 yards and one touchdown in 2014. Tight ends Brandon Myers (22 catches), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (21 catches), Luke Stocker (seven catches) and Cameron Brate (one catch) totaled 51 receptions for 469 and two touchdowns last year.
“Early on, knowing his track record gave us some confidence, but now having all the reps in his system has made us even more confident,” Stocker said. “In the preseason we got a glimpse of this offense and what it has in store and the potential it has. Seeing that got us excited as players and even more confident in our coach.
“Every position is viable in this offense. “We tight ends were kind of the forgotten position on offense last year, but not this year.”
This year it’s a different story. Sims (28 catches), Martin (22 catches) and Rainey (three catches) already have combined for 53 catches for 513 yards and four touchdowns in 2015 with five games left. Brate (14 catches), Myers (12 catches), Seferian-Jenkins (seven catches) Stocker (three catches) already have 36 receptions for 466 yards and five touchdowns through 11 games.
“In this offense, everybody can make a play, from the running backs to the tight ends to all three receivers,” Bucs wide receiver Louis Murphy said. “Sometimes we spread it out and go four receivers, or five with empty sets, too. It’s a very explosive offense. Dirk Koetter is one of the best offensive coordinators in the NFL.”
Koetter has the Bucs offense ranked 9th in the NFL in total offense, averaging 368.3 yards per game. Tampa Bay’s ground game is the third-best in the league, averaging 141.3 yards per game. Explosive plays – and Koetter’s emphasis on them – are the reason why.
Keep in mind that Seferian-Jenkins has missed nine and a half games with a severe shoulder injury and wide receiver Vincent Jackson missed three with a knee injury and Mike Evans missed the season opener with a pulled hamstring. The number of explosive plays may be even higher if not for those injuries.
Still, to have as many big plays with a rookie quarterback at the helm is quite a feat. Part of the reason why Koetter preferred Winston over Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is because of the explosive plays Winston made downfield in the passing game at Florida State. Koetter had great success with Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan, a pocket passer, for three years in Atlanta, and saw some similar traits in Winston.
“Well, a ‘gunslinger mentality’ is good. It’s a good thing to have,” Koetter said of Winston. “We all have seen those quarterbacks that are going to check it down every time no matter what. We don’t want that either, because turnovers get you beat the fastest, but explosive plays help you win the fastest.”
Winston immediately fell in love with Koetter’s offense and his affinity for explosive plays upon arriving in Tampa Bay for the rookie mini-camp and OTAs.
“The most exciting part is the explosive plays and definitely getting to throw to all these big-time wide receivers we have,” Winston said. “It’s very quarterback-friendly. It’s about explosiveness. Obviously Coach Koetter, his resume speaks for itself. He’s had a couple great quarterbacks in David Garrard and Matt Ryan and some other guys and, especially Matt Ryan, that guy is amazing. So, definitely, I would love to follow in his footsteps.”
Winston’s 2,650 yards are the most passing yards by a rookie quarterback in Tampa Bay history. He needs four more touchdown passes in the remaining five games to eclipse Glennon’s rookie passing TD record of 19, which was set in 2013.
“It’s a very balanced offense as we mix in all the different aspects of the game, which is nice because it keeps the defense on their heels,” Glennon said. “Screens can help slow down the pass rush. It’s a real good offense and I think we’re been reaping the benefits of having an offensive coordinator like Dirk and his system this year.”
Bucs linebacker Danny Lansanah went up against Koetter’s offense twice a year when Koetter was in Atlanta, and now has to battle it every day in practice. The Bucs will battle Koetter’s former team, the Falcons, again on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium and he’s glad that Koetter is wearing red and pewter rather than red and black.
“He attacks what he sees and utilizes the talent that he has to the fullest,” Lansanah said. “If Dirk sees any weaknesses he attacks it. His scheme makes you do what the coaches teach you because if you don’t you’re going to get exposed. It’s very challenging to go up against.”
The Falcons will find that out again on Sunday.
FAB 3. WINSTON LEADING ROOKIE OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE
Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston had the honor and distinction of being the first player selected in the 2015 NFL Draft. Now he has the chance at another once-in-a-lifetime experience – winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Winston is currently the leading candidate for the league’s top offensive rookie honors. The former Seminole was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Month for November and if he can repeat that feat in December he’ll have a great chance to beat out Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota, St. Louis running back Todd Gurley and Oakland wide receiver Amari Cooper for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Here’s how the top four candidates stack up heading into the final five games of the 2015 season:
1. BUCS QB JAMEIS WINSTON – 11 GAMES
Winston has completed 203-of-350 passes for 2,650 yards (58 percent) with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a 85.3 QB rating. That’s more passing yards than any rookie quarterback this season, and his 16 TD passes are tied with Mariota. When you factor in Winston’s 37 carries for 145 yards (3.9) and four rushing touchdowns, he has 20 total TDs, which is three more than Mariota.
Winston has been sacked 22 times and fumbled five times with one of those resulting in a turnover. He’s been named the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year three times, which is more than any other rookie this year, including Cooper, who won it twice, and Mariota, who won the award just once.
Winston has not thrown an interception in six games this year, including four in a row, which tied a rookie record, and his five-touchdown performance at Philadelphia tied an NFL rookie record. Winston only has two games with more interceptions than touchdowns during his initial NFL season.
Winston has scored a touchdown – either rushing or passing – in every game this year and is the only rookie that can make that claim. He has helped guide the Buccaneers to a 2-1 record in the NFC South and a 5-6 overall record, which is three more wins than Mariota’s Titans have.
2. TITANS QB MARCUS MARIOTA – 9 GAMES
Mariota has completed 186-of-296 for 2,244 yards (62.8 percent) with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions and a 92.8 QB rating. Mariota has rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries (6.2 avg.), which gives him 17 total touchdowns.
Mariota has been sacked 26 times in two less games than Winston, and has fumbled seven times with four resulting in turnovers. His 13 total turnovers is two more than Winston – again in two less games.
Mariota does have two four-touchdown, no-interception games – both of which came in both of Tennessee’s two wins this season. That’s an NFL rookie record, and one of those wins came against Winston and the Bucs in Week 1. That head-to-head matchup could sway the NFL’s mind in Mariota’s favor if the stats between the two rookie QBs end up very close.
Mariota’s only other victory came in overtime where he outgunned Drew Brees in New Orleans, but Winston accomplished that feat, too. Mariota has two games with more interceptions than touchdowns like Winston, but he only has four games without an interception compared to Winston’s six. While Winston has at least one touchdown in all 11 games this year, Mariota has produced a touchdown in only seven games.
The fact that he has played two less games than Winston and has a 2-7 record as a starter puts Mariota behind Tampa Bay’s rookie signal caller for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. After all, quarterbacks are measured in wins and losses. Winston has three more wins and one less loss at this point of the season.
3. ST. LOUIS RB TODD GURLEY – 9 GAMES
Gurley came on strong with four straight 100-yard outings a month into the regular season after missing the first two games of the season. When he got rolling, Gurley, who has made an incredible recovery from a torn ACL injury at Georgia last year, was nearly unstoppable. He resembled Adrian Peterson in having three runs of 50 yards or more andracking up the bulk of his 794 yards and six touchdowns this season in those four games.
But Gurley has cooled off considerably over the last month, failing to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark over the last four games. The Rams have also lost four straight, and are just 3-6 in games Gurley has played in.
For Gurley to win the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award he’ll have to have a breakout month in December and finish with over 1,200 yards with at least 10 touchdowns. He’ll also have to play better than Winston does when the Rams host the Bucs on Thursday Night Football on December 17.
4. OAKLAND WR AMARI COOPER – 11 GAMES
Cooper has been a stud receiver for Oakland’s second-year quarterback Derek Carr in helping the Raiders to a 5-6 record. Cooper has won the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week award twice this year while racking up 58 catches for 851 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games.
Cooper needs to have a huge month and help get Oakland into a Wild Card playoff spot to get the notoriety he needs to win the rookie honors and that might be a tall order. Cooper doesn’t have any multi-touchdown games and hasn’t had a dominant performance. In fact, the most yards Cooper has produced in any game is 134, which is kind of pedestrian.
Cooper has also been held to under 50 yards receiving in five games, including a one-catch, four-yard effort in a recent 18-13 loss to Detroit, which hurts his cause. Unless Cooper has some monster games and finishes with 1,400 yards and at least 10 touchdowns he’s a long shot to beat out Winston or Mariota for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
FAB 4. PENALTIES WILL PREVENT BUCS FROM MAKING THE PLAYOFFS
For all of Lovie Smith’s talk about creating takeaways on defense and his team’s reliance on them, the first rule of football is don’t beat yourself. Beating yourself comes in two forms – turnovers and penalties.
The Bucs have done a decent job with turnovers lately on offense with just one over the past two weeks, but they continue to beat themselves with penalties. Tampa Bay is leading the league with 109 penalties for 894 yards – just ahead of Buffalo, who has 104 infractions for 943 yards.
A football team cannot control takeaways. Tampa Bay can try to force fumbles and intercept passes, but it can’t rely on them.