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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. Licht, Koetter Can Survive If Winston’s A Bust
Jameis Winston was benched this week in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick after throwing four interceptions, including a pick-six, in a meltdown performance that harkened back to the days of former Tampa Bay quarterbacks named Dilfer or Freeman. As a result, Winston may or may not get another chance to throw another pass as a Buccaneer – this year or ever.
If Winston fails in Tampa Bay he takes head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht down with him, right?
That’s what NFL conventional wisdom suggests.
Why? Because that’s the way it’s always been.
Name a failed first-round quarterback and I’ll show you a regime change that usually happens as a result.
The Jaguars drafted quarterback Blaine Gabbert in the first round in 2011 and head coach Jack Del Rio didn’t even last the entire season, getting fired on November 29 that year. General manager Gene Smith was fired after the 2012 season. Cleveland has done it twice within the last decade. The Browns fired general manager Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur for drafting Brandon Weeden in the first round in 2012, and then fired G.M. Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine for drafting Johnny Manziel in the first round in 2014.
The failed development of Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2009, led to the firings of Raheem Morris in 2011 and Greg Schiano in 2013, as well as general manager Mark Dominik’s ouster following the 2013 season. There have been scores of others.
But does it have to be that way?
That’s an old way of thinking.
Since the rookie salary cap came into existence in 2010, first-round quarterbacks no longer strangle a team’s salary cap for the better part of decade. In 2010, quarterback Sam Bradford, who was the first overall pick by the St. Louis Rams, signed a six-year deal worth $78 million.
The next year when the rookie salary cap was put in place, Cam Newton was selected first overall by Carolina and signed a four-year deal worth $22 million. The same held true the next year when Andrew Luck went first overall to Indianapolis and signed a similar four-year, $22 million contract.
Three years later, the Bucs drafted Winston first overall and he’s made just over $23 million during the past four years. That seems like a lot of money, but wide receiver DeSean Jackson has nearly made that much in the past two seasons in Tampa Bay.
Winston’s big money comes next year when he is due $20.92 million with his fifth-year option. Because it’s a club option and only guaranteed if Winston were to get hurt and unable to play in 2019, the Bucs can rescind that offer if they choose and let Winston become a free agent. Or they could trade Winston to a team that has over $20.92 million in salary cap room in the offseason.
I don’t think Tampa Bay is ready to give up on Winston yet, though.
No, first-round failures at the quarterback position don’t have to be an albatross around the neck of general managers. Not anymore.
There have been some general managers that have survived failed first-round quarterbacks. Rick Spielman survived drafting Christian Ponder 12th overall in the 2011 draft in Minnesota and Teddy Bridgewater in 2014, and Ozzie Newsome, who is widely regarded as one of the league’s best draft masters, selected Kyle Boller 19th overall in his second draft in 2003 and survived to draft Joe Flacco in 2008 and Lamar Jackson last season.
Licht should be the next G.M. to survive a first-round failure – even if Winston has thrown his last pass in Tampa Bay.
Because Licht and Koetter have built one of the best offenses in the league – putting up more total yards and passing yards than the Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, and nearly as many points, too.
Fresh off a team-record 576 yards against Cincinnati, the Bucs are averaging 467.6 yards per game. The next closest team is the Rams, which are averaging 442.6 yards per game. Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick combined to throw for 470 yards last week as Tampa Bay is now averaging 376.3 passing yards per game. The next team is Pittsburgh, which is averaging 318.1 yards per game.
The Bucs offense is averaging 28.7 points per game, which ranks seventh in the league. The Chiefs lead the way with 36.2 points per game and are one of three teams averaging over 30 points per game, followed by the Saints (33.4) and the Rams (33).
Licht and Koetter have built the right kind of modern NFL offense that can compete with the likes of Drew Brees’ Saints, Cam Newton’s Panthers and Matt Ryan’s Falcons in the NFC Shootout Division – I mean the NFC South.
Stack any skill position group in the NFL against the likes of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard, Cam Brate, Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries and tell me they’re better. There is no team that has six better receiving weapons than Tampa Bay’s unit top-to-bottom.
Licht assembled that group with first-rounders in Evans and Howard, a prized free agent in Jackson, a mid-round gem in Godwin and two undrafted free agents in Brate and Humphries. And he locked up Evans and Brate to long-term deals this offseason.
Tag Licht with possibly missing on Winston. That looks fair right now, but Marcus Mariota doesn’t look any better with three touchdowns and five interceptions for 3-4 Tennessee – and no other QB from the 2015 draft class is a starting-caliber guy.
Say that Licht does indeed whiff on Winston. Yet he doesn’t he get credit for finding Evans, Howard and Godwin in the draft, and for signing Brate and Humphries after the draft? Of course he does.
With offensive coordinator Todd Monken at the helm of Koetter’s playbook, the Bucs offense is a machine capable of being run by anyone that doesn’t turn the ball over with great regularity. For all of Winston’s talent and physical capability, a 35-year old journeyman had three consecutive 400-yard passing games to start the season, which set an NFL record. The Bucs were four points away from a 3-0 start as a result.
Fitzpatrick has only played in less than four complete games this year and has 13 touchdowns and five interceptions compared to Winston’s six touchdowns and 10 interceptions, which are the most in the NFL, over a similar span of playing time. Koetter’s decision to bench Winston was a no-brainer, and the right call.
Fitzpatrick has just as many touchdown passes as Newton and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers this year and more than Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (12) and Oakland’s Derek Carr (10) – in half the starts.
This Buccaneers offensive machine is so potent that I suggest that third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin, who has yet to throw a pass in any NFL regular season game, could take the helm of the Bucs offensive machine and possibly throw for 300 yards in a game.
“It is a machine,” Humphries said about the Bucs offense. “Everyone can make plays. Everyone is a guy that can make 10 catches a game. Thinking back to a few years ago when we only did have three guys who were getting targets, and now it’s just like we don’t have enough passes to go around. It’s crazy and that’s fun to play for and it’s exciting every week to go in not knowing who’s going to be one to make the next big play or have that next big catch.
“Obviously we do take a lot of pride in having the best offense in the league. It’s awesome to have an explosive offense like that. We just have a bunch of guys in the room that are talented and can make plays.”
There is a pathway out of this for Licht and Koetter so that they remain in Tampa Bay in 2019 and beyond. Fitzpatrick must lead the Bucs to a 6-3 finish down the stretch that would give Tampa Bay a 9-7 record. I think Licht and Koetter could even survive a 5-4 finish with a strong December that led to an 8-8 record given the amount of close losses this team has endured.
Outside of a blowout by the Bears in Week 4, the Bucs have lost to the Steelers by three points, the Falcons by five points and the Bengals by three points on a last-second field goal. Tampa Bay’s offense averaged 30 points per game in those three losses.
Building Tampa Bay’s potent offensive machine has come at a cost as the team’s defense has struggled. At first glance, Licht hasn’t drafted well on the defensive side of the ball outside of Pro Bowl middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, who was lost for the season due to a torn ACL against Cleveland. After all but ignoring the offense in his first two drafts, Licht selected cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and defensive end Noah Spence with the first two picks in 2016. Neither one may ultimately pan out, but Hargreaves was showing real progress this offseason and in the preseason before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 1.
The jury is still out on free safety Justin Evans, the second-round pick in 2017, and this year’s class, which includes first-round pick defensive tackle Vita Vea, second-round cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis and strong safety Jordan Whitehead. We truly won’t know if these players are hits or misses for a couple of years until they have time to develop.
Licht has had to turn to free agency and the trade market to help construct the defense with his biggest moves being signing nose tackle Beau Allen, defensive end Vinny Curry and trading a third-round pick for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, which was a steal, in the offseason. Licht also found a nice waiver wire pick-up in Carl Nassib, who had two big sacks in the win over Cleveland.
Koetter has some culpability in the team’s defensive woes too, after he kept defensive coordinator Mike Smith after a disastrous season a year ago. Koetter stopped hanging on to that mistake by firing Smith after a 34-29 loss to Atlanta – although it should have happened during the bye week. Linebackers coach Mark Duffner replaced Smith, and there has been some improvement, but it will take a few more personnel changes on defense next year to really turn this unit around.
I know the Glazers are sick and tired of waiting for a winning season, and so are Bucs fans. At 3-4 with Fitzpatrick at the helm, there’s still a chance that happens this season.
If that doesn’t occur, hitting the reset button on this regime seems like the obvious move, but that could be a big mistake. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
It took Newsome giving up on Boller, who never delivered a playoff season in Baltimore, before the Ravens became a consistent winner Joe Flacco, who was selected in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft. Five straight playoff years ensued, including a Super Bowl title in 2012.
Another head coach and general manager could come in and dismantle the greatest offense the Bucs have ever had – one that is young and will help the Bucs compete for the playoffs for years to come – just to bring in their own players and do things their own way.
Don’t believe me? Look at the demolition job Jon Gruden is doing in Oakland, shipping out former first-round picks Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. Quarterback Derek Carr, another first-round pick, could be next.
New Giants general manager David Gettleman came in and traded away the best player on the team in Pierre-Paul, who is one of the league’s best pass rushers and still in his prime, much to Licht’s benefit. Stuff like this happens – needlessly in most cases.
Are you ready to see Godwin or Brate shipped out of Tampa Bay by a new regime that wants to put its own stamp on the team? I’m not.
Do the Glazers even trust themselves to make the right move and bring in a new regime? After all, the Glazer boys fired Jon Gruden and hired Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith before Koetter. Not exactly a sterling track record, and it was their late father, Malcom, that had the wisdom to make the trade for Gruden in 2002 – not his sons.
The Buccaneers are bigger than one player – even their former first-round quarterback.
As we’re finding out, Koetter’s offense is also bigger than Winston. It’s a machine that needs an accurate triggerman – one that won’t turn the ball over with great regularity. Fitzpatrick appears to be that guy.
If I’m Licht and Koetter, I’m planning on starting Fitzpatrick next year if he continues to play well down the stretch, and then decide what to do with Winston in the offseason – unless he comes in and plays better, turnover-free football at some point later this year.
Brad Johnson won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay at age 34. Fitzpatrick will be 36 next year and is only a year older than Aaron Rodgers. Rich Gannon was the league’s MVP in 2002 at age 37 and lost the Super Bowl to Johnson and the Bucs that same year.
Peyton Manning had a season for the ages with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in Denver at age 37 before losing to Seattle in the Super Bowl. Two years later at age 39 he won a Super Bowl in Denver before retiring.
Drew Brees is playing well at age 39, setting NFL records and has 6-1 New Orleans in contention for a playoff run this year. The same could be said of 41-year old Tom Brady and 6-2 New England.
Fitzpatrick isn’t the caliber of quarterback that Brady, Manning or Brees are – although he did outduel Brees in New Orleans in Week 1. He’s more like Gannon, another journeyman that found success much later in his career.
“Fitz plays like he’s in high school,” said Bucs fullback Alan Cross. “With the Saints, when he threw those deep balls and he was doing his thing he was like a kid again. That’s why we all play the game. That’s why we play the game right there. When we were kids playing in the front yard, you just do it because of that. When he does that it just makes everybody smile and just relax and have fun. He doesn’t play like he’s 35.”
Who’s to say that Fitz can’t be the Bucs’ starter for a year or two and serve as a bridge while Tampa Bay continues to develop Winston – or looks to acquire a younger quarterback in the draft or via a trade?
A general manager’s role is not to hit on every draft pick or free agent. That simply doesn’t happen. It’s to build a team.
Licht has already found two starting quarterbacks for the Buccaneers. Aside from drafting Winston, he signed Fitzpatrick last year and then re-signed him this year.
“Why don’t people switch most quarterbacks? Because they don’t like their backup,” Koetter said. “They don’t think their backup can do the job. The whole way this whole season has played out has led to this. If Jameis isn’t missing those first three games and Fitz doesn’t come in and light it up for two-and-a-half of those games, if you don’t know what you have at your No. 2 quarterback – and look around the league – some teams don’t even like their first quarterback let alone their second quarterback.”
“A lot of teams don’t switch because they have an untested backup or they’re afraid to put their backup in there and we don’t have either of those. Right now, we just have to stop turning the ball over and so we’re going to go with Fitz. I still have plenty of confidence in Jameis moving forward.”
So far, Fitzpatrick is 4-3 in his seven games as a starter. Winston is 4-12 in his last 16 starts.
Let’s see how this season plays out. Thanks to the offensive machine they’ve built, the fate of Licht and Koetter no longer rest has to ride on the right arm of Winston.
Instead, they hope to escape the chopping block with the help of FitzMagic – and the offensive machine that has been built in Tampa Bay that pretty much any quarterback could operate given the array of weapons to throw to.