FAB 2. Koetter’s Coaching Will Determine Bucs’ Success
Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter won’t throw one pass, catch one ball, make one tackle or score one touchdown this season for the Buccaneers.
After all, football is a players’ game. Koetter will be the first one to tell you that.
Yet coaches can also play a big role in the outcome of games. That’s why they’re on the sidelines.
Not only can Koetter make an impact on Sundays with his offensive play calls and decision-making, he can make a significant difference for his players throughout the season. And this year he’ll need to.
In a season that will feature 16 straight weeks of football without a bye week for the Buccaneers due to Hurricane Irma striking the state of Florida, Koetter will have to turn in his best year ever as a head coach. That might sound funny for a head coach entering only his second year on the job – especially entering a season with robust playoff expectations – but Koetter will have to rise to the occasion in a year that will become harder than anyone expected just two weeks ago when he and his staff were preparing to face the Dolphins in Miami in Week 1.
I believe he will.
Koetter’s players do, too.
The reason is because Koetter is a player’s coach and his approach resonates with his players. They trust him. They believe in him. They know he has their back.
“Dirk has got connection ability,” said Bucs linebackers coach Mark Duffner, who coached with Koetter from their days together in Jacksonville from 2007-11. “He’s a genuine person. He’s got a genuine appreciation for the players and for the community. When someone is genuine you can feel that. He knows and wants to connect with people. He works with that with our players. That’s what it’s all about. He’s a bright guy that is anxious to make this team back to what it can be and make this community proud.
“He’s a team-first guy all the way. He’s a deflector, and what I mean by that is that he is a humble guy that deflects praise. It’s all about ‘we’ with Dirk. He has the traits that we all admire and we all respect and we want our team to emulate.”
The players appreciate Koetter’s genuineness, and that’s a big reason why they want to win for him.
“The thing I love about Coach Koetter is he is just himself,” Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston said. “He’s gritty. He doesn’t try to adjust himself for any reason. It’s hard to explain someone who is as genuine as he is. I just love the way he pushes me and pushes this team.”
Koetter pushed his players during training camp this year, but not too hard.
In fact, it was the softest Bucs training camp I’d ever witnessed in my 24 years of covering the team. No live goal line drills. No live tackling periods. At one point in the preseason I was worried whether the Bucs had become “hardened” enough during training camp. But Koetter’s main goal was to get everyone healthy for Week 1 in Miami – not to needlessly get players injured through friendly fire in practice.
It turns out Koetter’s plan was genius – and not just for trying to have the healthiest squad possible to start the season.
“Yeah, we are pretty healthy,” Koetter said on Wednesday. “You’ll see from the injury report. It will never be this clean again.”
In a season that now features 16 straight weeks of football due to the NFL moving the Bucs vs. Dolphins game to Week 11 during the teams’ original bye week due to Hurricane Irma, Koetter’s soft training camp practice has his team fresher than any heading into the regular season. The veterans have had the last three weeks off and that will serve the Bucs well for the long haul from a health and fatigue standpoint.
After the Bucs were given a bye week in Week 1, Koetter told the players that he would take care of them and give them ample rest at strategic points throughout the season. One such window of time is after the Bucs host the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on October 5. The team has 10 days before traveling to Arizona to play the Cardinals on October 15. Tampa Bay also has a Monday Night Football game against Atlanta on December 18, so there is another window where Koetter could give the Bucs an extra day or two off late in the season.
“I was kind of hoping we would play [the Dolphins] Thursday in Orlando or a neutral site, but you’ve got to trust in the organization and trust in the coaching,” Bucs defensive tackle Clinton McDonald said. “The coaches and the head coach have been doing it for awhile. They’ve probably seen a little bit of everything. You just have to trust that they are going to get us right and ready to go a whole 16 [weeks]. That’s what it’s going to be. Everybody makes adjustments. Dirk is going to make sure the whole team gets our rest regardless. He’s going to do a good job of taking care of us.
“Now what makes Dirk excel above a lot of coaches in the league is that he always researches and is always digging for ways to get ahead. Not just on the field or in the film room, but the different quotes he comes up with to inspire the guys. He digs for those quotes and it inspires guys to think outside the box – to think and know what resiliency is. To think and know what gritty is, and how to be a tough team.”
With a bye week so early, the Bucs are at a competitive disadvantage versus the rest of the league – outside of the Dolphins, who are in the same boat. Teams wear down during the season and fatigue sets in. We all saw it last year in Tampa Bay when a fresher Atlanta Falcons team beat a Bucs team that only had four days rest from a loss to Oakland that went nearly a full overtime quarter.
You can bet that Koetter and his staff spent part of the Bucs’ bye week retooling the regular season practice schedule in an effort to keep the team as healthy and rested as possible for 16 straight weeks.
The fact that Tampa Bay’s indoor practice facility is nearing completion will also help keep the team fresh by staying out of the heat for walk-throughs and some practices, which will be in the dome adjacent to One Buccaneer Place. The indoor practice facility is a godsend that the team needs now more than ever, and the timing of its construction this year couldn’t have been any better.
“If you look at it as a player, you don’t like not having a bye week,” said Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson. “But Dirk ensured us that he would take care of us. Whatever happens, he’ll take care of us. Hopefully when we come to Week 11 we’ll be 10-0. But we’ll just take it one game at a time.”
Koetter will also get feedback from his captains to help him guide the team through a season without a bye week.
“One thing about him is that listens and he’s very receptive to how we feel,” McCoy said. “What makes him so great is his brute honesty with himself and everybody around him. He feels that in order to get better you have to be honest with yourself. You can’t be fake. That’s what he told us about Hard Knocks. He said, ‘Don’t be fake. Be real. Whatever you are you have to own it.’ He says what he wants. He means what he says. And he owns it. If he said it, he meant it and he doesn’t back down from nobody. That’s what makes him Dirk. He’s real. He’s as real as it gets and that’s what I love about him.”
When the players wanted a juice and smoothie bar to help them recover after practice, Koetter made sure it was installed in the players’ lounge. When the captains told Koetter they wanted a basketball goal, a ping-pong table and cornhole boards in the locker room to have some fun during their downtime and to help players bond, he granted them their wishes.
“Dirk is the same guy since I met him – a straightforward, detailed, all-about-fundamentals kind of guy,” said running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who played for Koetter in Atlanta from 2012-14. “From what I’ve seen of him as an offensive coordinator to a head coach – he hasn’t changed. I like his approach about everything. We approach everything with a smart perspective – work hard, but have fun and do it right. That’s always been his thing – having fun. He wants you to enjoy football.”
To Koetter and his team inside One Buccaneer Place, fun and success go hand-in-hand throughout the season. To those outside the walls of the Bucs’ headquarters, Tampa Bay’s return to its winning ways with a 9-7 record was considered a success, and playing meaningful football games in December when the team was still in the midst of a playoff hunt was quite fun.
Last year Koetter joined Bucs Ring of Honor and Super Bowl-winning head coach Jon Gruden as the only head coaches in Tampa Bay history to post winning records in their first season. Those that have been around Koetter a long time weren’t surprised with his initial success as a head coach.
“Was I surprised? Not even close,” Duffner said. “He did a phenomenal job as a head coach at Boise State and then went to Arizona State and did a great job there. I met him on the road when he was up in Oregon as the offensive coordinator up there. I had known about him in his career, and when we connected in Jacksonville it was easy to see his leadership ability and being bright and being a doggone good coach. He wasn’t just a good coordinator, he was a good visionary coach.”
Former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who played for Koetter from 2007-11, also wasn’t shocked to see Koetter quickly find his footing as a head coach last year.
“No, not at all,” Jones-Drew told me when he was in town for NFL Network during training camp. “When we were in Jacksonville he used to say it’s a players game. He knows he has to have certain players run his system. We had a couple of players who were really good in it. Obviously when he went to Atlanta he had a lot of players who were really good at it. You saw how much they grew. When he came to Tampa his success didn’t surprise me. He hired some really good people around him, too. These guys have coached before. With a guy like Smitty (defensive coordinator Mike Smith), he doesn’t have to worry about the defense. He can focus on the offense and know that the defense is taken care of.
“A lot of coaches sometimes give the reins to other guys, but calling the plays on offense is what he was hired for. He continues to do that and they’ll be fine. The way they attacked the offense in the offseason – they are really focused on what he does best. I think there are a lot of good players on this competitive roster and I’m excited to see what they can do. Last year they were close. They have a quarterback that they drafted that they know, that they developed that can be coached hard and knows your system like he does.”
Continuing to strengthen Koetter’s relationship with Winston is also at the heart of any success the Bucs will have in 2017. Winston ultimately wants to have just one play-caller in his career just like future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees has had in the New Orleans portion of his career with head coach Sean Payton, and wants that to be Koetter.
“Absolutely, that’s a big part of the success with a quarterback having the same coach and offensive coordinator – the same voice you’re hearing all the time,” Winston said. “I want Dirk to be in Tampa Bay a long time, too. He’s the man. He’s brought back that swag. We had a winning season last year. The sky is the limit for Coach Koetter and I’m going to be right there with him, trying to make his job easier.
“He does a great job calling plays. It’s his job and he’s good at it. I’m excited for this year with he and I having that continuity and we’ve been in this offense for three years. He’s going to have fun with it. He’s just a great coach.”
Koetter knows that a season with 16 straight games will be hard, but he’s up to the unexpected challenge and he’ll find ways to get his players the rest they need.
Somehow Koetter will continue find a way to make football fun for 16 straight weeks.
And somehow Koetter will also find a way to make this season a success in Tampa Bay.