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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. The Case For Licht As The Bucs’ G.M.
In this week’s edition of SR’s Fab 5, I am going to lay out the case for and against the Buccaneers keeping general manager Jason Licht. With Tampa Bay now 5-7 after successive wins over the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers, his departure seems far less assured than it did when the Bucs were 3-7 and mired in a four-game losing streak.
For those of you that are close-minded and want Licht gone no matter what, skip this section and go straight to Fab 2 where I lay out the case for his departure. Otherwise, keep reading.
First things are first, and there is a chance that Licht could stick around with a one-year contract extension for two reasons. It is not a foregone conclusion that the Glazers fire Licht.
The first reason Licht could remain in Tampa Bay is the Glazers themselves. They have a very good relationship with Licht. It’s certainly better than they had with former general managers Rich McKay and Bruce Allen, and probably Mark Dominik, too. That does nothing but help Licht, although that alone won’t be the reason he would stay in Tampa Bay for 2019.
The Glazer brothers have to be questioning their decision-making ability when it comes to coaches. Ever since their father, the late Malcolm Glazer, hired Tony Dungy to be the team’s head coach in 1996 and then spectacularly traded for Jon Gruden in 2002, Bryan, Ed and Joel Glazer, who serve as the co-chairmen of the team, have struck out royally in picking head coaches and general managers.
The Glazer brothers assumed control of the team in 2006 after their father suffered two strokes and proceeded to fire Gruden and Allen after back-to-back 9-7 seasons, hire Raheem Morris as the head coach and Mark Dominik as the general manager, replace Morris with Greg Schiano three years later in 2012, replace Schiano with Lovie Smith two years after that in 2014, replace Dominik with Licht, who was served up by Smith, and then replace Smith with Dirk Koetter two years later in 2016.
If Koetter gets fired after this season – his chances of staying onboard increase with every Bucs victory in December – the Glazers will be looking for their fifth head coach in a decade. They’re not very good at this, although to be fair, Dominik aided in the Schiano hiring, and Licht served up Koetter, which was kind of a foregone conclusion after he performed extremely well as the team’s offensive coordinator under Smith in 2015.
Only twice have the Glazers had to go it alone and hire both a head coach and a general manager at the same time. The first time was rather easy for them, as they simply promoted in-house candidates Domink and Morris. In 2014, the Glazers hired Smith first and then he turned around and hired Licht, who had previously interviewed with Chicago when Smith was the Bears head coach.
If I were the Glazers and I had their track record, I would be scared to death about the prospects of hiring both a general manager and a head coach at the same time.
Who are the truly great general manager candidates? Grabbing personnel executives from winning teams doesn’t always equal success, as Tim Ruskell, Jerry Angelo and Ruston Webster found out once they left Tampa Bay. The same could be said of Scott Pioli when he left New England for Kansas City in 2009.
Hiring a general manager first can be a gamble because he has to pick the right head coach and coaching staff, and then pick the right players for a staff he might have never worked with before.
And should the Glazers hire a head coach first and then let him pick his general manager? Gruden did that with Allen and the results were disastrous from a personnel standpoint. So far, Licht has proven to be a far better general manager in Tampa Bay than Smith was as a head coach.
Could the Glazers taking a “grass is greener” approach and thinking they can do better than Licht actually backfire? Yes, it could.
There are far worse general managers out there than Licht, that draft worse players, that hire worse head coaches, that mismanage the salary cap. Just look at the Cleveland Browns or the Oakland Raiders over the last decade.
Knowing their luck, the Glazers will find such a replacement.
Remember, they thought Smith, a former Super Bowl head coach with a proven track record in Chicago and previous ties to the Bucs, was going to be better than Schiano. Instead, Tampa Bay went from 4-12 to 2-14.
Yes, I believe the Glazers can pick a worse general manager than Licht.
The second reason Licht could stay on in Tampa Bay is of course, his accomplishments. Licht has his share of mistakes, which I’m not going to gloss over or avoid. They will comprise much of Fab 2 – so keep reading. But in this section I’m going to highlight the positives.
In his five drafts with the Buccaneers, Licht has selected three Pro Bowlers in wide receiver Mike Evans, quarterback Jameis Winston and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander. I believe that Ali Marpet might develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber guard in time. He’s playing his third position in three years.
Licht has extended the contracts of Evans, Marpet and tight end Cameron Brate this year, and had previously extended the contracts of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, Pro Bowl linebacker Lavonte David and starting right tackle Demar Dotson. He hasn’t allowed any of the Bucs’ better players to leave via free agency.
Because he was the first overall pick in 2015, Winston’s success – or lack thereof – will be tied to Licht. While Winston owns a career 21-30 record as Tampa Bay’s starter, he has been the most successful quarterback statistically speaking in franchise history.
In Sunday’s win over Carolina, Winston threw his 81st touchdown pass, which is the most in Bucs history, and his 13,577 career passing yards are the second-most in franchise history. Winston, who was the 2015 Pepsi Rookie of the Year, has 14 games with 300-plus passing yards, which is the most in team annals, as are his nine career games with at least three passing touchdowns and his 18 career games with a passer rating of 100 or higher.
Winston established a franchise single-season record with the most touchdown passes in a single season with 28 in 2016, and his 4,090 passing yards that year were the most by a Bucs QB in a single season. Winston’s 69 touchdown passes in his first three seasons are tied for the seventh-most ever by a quarterback and his 11,636 passing yards are the third-most ever by a quarterback in their first three seasons, trailing only Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning.
While Winston, who is set to earn $20.92 million next year in a fifth-year option, has his share of faults, including a penchant for turnovers, he has emerged from the first benching of his football life to have back-to-back turnover-free games in wins against San Francisco and Carolina. He’s also only 24 years old after leaving Florida State as a redshirt sophomore. Many believe that despite his accomplishments, Winston’s best football lies ahead of him if he can continue to limit his turnovers.
On the defensive side of the ball, Licht deserves plenty of credit for stealing defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul away from the New York Giants for a third-rounder in a trade this offseason, and for putting in a waiver claim on Carl Nassib prior to the start of the season. Pierre-Paul has clearly been the Bucs’ best defensive player with 11.5 sacks, and is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Nassib has a career-high 5.5 sacks and a bright future in Tampa Bay as a starting defensive end opposite JPP. Plus, Nassib has one more year left on his rookie deal, which will be a salary cap coup next year.
While his free agent signings this offseason – cornerback Brent Grimes, defensive linemen Beau Allen, Vinny Curry and Mitch Unrein – have not had the impact many hoped for, Licht has constructed an offense that is among the best in the league. Signing center Ryan Jensen was a big offseason coup for Licht.
Evans is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season with 1,121 yards and five touchdowns on 66 catches. His 17-yard avg. is a career-best. DeSean Jackson was on pace to hit 1,000 yards with 40 catches for 750 yards and four touchdowns before a thumb injury caused him to miss last week’s game against Carolina and put the rest of his season in jeopardy.
The Bucs offense also features two gems from Licht’s 2017 draft class in tight end O.J. Howard, who had 565 yards and five touchdowns on 34 receptions before going on injured reserve, and 676 yards and five scores on 49 catches from wide receiver Chris Godwin. Howard is a future Pro Bowler and Godwin is a future 1,000-yard receiver.
Licht’s ability to find some undrafted free agent gems has also greatly aided Tampa Bay’s offense. Brate has lost playing time to Howard, but is a starting-caliber tight end in his own right with 23 catches for 221 yards and four touchdowns, while slot receiver Adam Humphries has had a breakout year with 53 catches for 606 yards and a career-high five TDs.
Undrafted free agent running back Peyton Barber is in his first full season as a starter and has rushed for a career-high 635 yards and four touchdowns to lead the team, with another score coming on a reception.
Through 12 weeks, Tampa Bay’s offense is the top-ranked offense in the league, averaging 442.7 yards per game, slightly ahead of the Los Angeles Rams (439.9 ypg.), Kansas City (437.2 ypg.) and Pittsburgh (413.8 ypg.). The Bucs have the NFL’s best passing attack in terms of yards, averaging 344.5 yards per game, which is way ahead of Pittsburgh (320.7 ypg.), Kansas City (316.5 ypg.), the Los Angeles Rams (300.5 ypg.) and Atlanta (298.6 ypg.). Tampa Bay is averaging 26.5 points per game, which ranks 10th in the league, and is scoring nearly a touchdown more per game this season over last year (20.9 ppg.).
Do the Glazers want to risk someone else coming in and having a new G.M. decide that Tampa Bay can get by with just Evans, Howard, Godwin and Justin Watson next year, and deal away Brate, let Humphries go in free agency, and cut or trade Jackson? Do the Glazers want a new regime coming in and deciding to move on from Winston? No, they need to keep this potent, high-powered offense together.
If you don’t believe that new general managers and head coaches come in and dismantle teams, look no further than what Jon Gruden did in Oakland in trading away former first-round picks Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, or what Giants G.M. did by dealing away New York’s best defender, Pierre-Paul, for a third-round pick.
There is no doubt that the Bucs are a more talented team now than when Licht arrived on the scene in 2014. He has had his share of gambles – the biggest of which was trading up in the second round for kicker Roberto Aguayo – that haven’t worked out. But one thing I have always admired is how Licht has a very small ego and doesn’t hold on to mistakes.
Licht isn’t afraid to admit a screw-up and quickly move on. He cut quarterback Josh McCown, left tackle Anthony Collins and defensive end Michael Johnson in 2014, cut linebacker Bruce Carter in 2015 and defensive tackle Chris Baker in 2017 after just one season. McCown and Johnson were Smith’s calls, while Licht owned the signings of Collins, Carter and Baker. If he were to stay on in 2019, I would expect some of the players he recently added would be hitting the road. Making mistakes is one thing. Holding on to mistakes only compounds them.
It should also be noted that Licht has done a great job of filling some big needs during this season, especially on defense, which has been hit ridiculously hard with injuries. The most helpless feeling for most general managers happens in September when the final 53-man roster is set. Outside of a rare in-season trade, teams rarely find impact players after Week 1, as there are very few saviors on the street.
Yet after claiming Nassib on waivers, Licht signed safety Andrew Adams, who has a team-high six pass breakups and had a career-high three interceptions in Sunday’s win against the Panthers, and cornerback De’Vante Harris, who had three pass breakups versus Carolina. Licht also signed linebacker Kevin Minter, who had a sack and a tackle for loss in just four snaps on Sunday, which is an incredibly productive ratio.
“At one point we were without our top five DBs, and Andrew Adams came up big and Kevin Minter had a sack and some tackles,” Koetter said. “Coach Buckner and Jason had Minter in Arizona, so they had some knowledge of him. We got a good report on Andrew Adams. We’re fortunate to have those guys.”
The term “player’s coach” gets thrown around a lot, but Licht is a “player’s G.M.” in that he really gets to know the Buccaneers individually. Licht had a private talk with Vea before the 49ers game and Vea credited Licht’s pep talk for helping him have a career day with three tackles for loss and a sack.
Licht and Jensen, who are Midwest natives, really bonded during the free agency recruitment period and that led the center to sign with Tampa Bay. The same could be said for his recruitment of Allen and Jackson in free agency over the last two years, in addition to other players, including Minter, who was one of Licht’s most recent acquisitions.
“He and I have a history together and I always felt like he was a good guy,” Minter said. “He has an eye for talent. Some G.M.s got it, and some G.M.s don’t. I feel like he’s got it. It’s a blessing to have a guy like that pick me off the street, knowing I could help this team. I am very appreciative of it. He gave me a chance, and I’m going to fight for him. I’m trying to prove him right, that he made the right decision for me.”
Yet Licht’s biggest in-season acquisition has been kicker Cairo Santos, who has been absolutely perfect in three games. Perhaps Santos ends the kicking woes that have befuddled Licht and Bucs fans everywhere in the past. Santos made all 11 of his extra points and all three of his field goals. I can’t remember the last time a Bucs kicker was perfect for three games in a row. I also can’t remember a kicker that splits the uprights the way Santos does, either.
Then there is Licht’s hiring of head coach Dirk Koetter. Of the NFL head coaching hires in 2016, Koetter (19-25) ranks as the third-best behind Philadelphia’s Super Bowl winner in Doug Pederson and Miami’s Adam Gase, who is 22-22. San Francisco fired Chip Kelly after one season. Mike Mularkey was fired by Tennessee after two years, while Ben McAdoo didn’t make it through a full second season in New York. Hue Jackson didn’t make it to the midway point of his third season in Cleveland.
Koetter seemed like the right hire at the time, given the development of the Bucs offense and Winston making the Pro Bowl after his rookie season and having back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons. Koetter’s 9-7 record in 2016 was the only winning season for a first-year coach in Tampa Bay history outside of Gruden’s 12-4 mark in 2002. But the Bucs haven’t lived up to expectations since then and have struggled to win close games under his leadership, evidenced by a record of 5-11 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including a 2-7 mark in games decided by a field goal or less.
These last four games will go a long way to determining the fate of Licht and Koetter. Both men made a bold change in firing defensive coordinator Mike Smith and replacing him with linebackers coach Mark Duffner, which was totally the right move as the Bucs have only allowed an average of 16.25 points per game at home under Duffner. If Tampa Bay runs the table it gets to 9-7 and would have a chance at the playoffs. Doing so would mean going on a six-game winning streak, which would be tied for the longest in franchise history.
In reality, an argument could be made to keep Licht and Koetter if the Bucs finished 7-9 and didn’t suffer a blowout down the stretch. That would be a two-win improvement over last year’s 5-11 record in a season in which Winston was suspended for three games and benched for two more, and a year in which the defense had a change in coordinators and an unbelievable rash of injuries that affected the linebacker corps and secondary the most.
Even if the Bucs stumble and finish 5-11 or 6-10, the case could be made to keep Licht if the Glazers wanted to fire Koetter. At the end of the season they will ask Licht what he thinks of Koetter, just like they did with Smith – the man who hired him – after the 2015 season. If I’m the Glazers and I’m deciding whether or not to keep Licht for one more season in 2019 and considering letting him assist in finding Koetter’s replacement – if that’s the path they choose on December 31 – I’m at least listening to his offseason plan.
If I’m the Glazers, I would want to know who Licht’s head coach and defensive coordinator candidates are, which personnel moves he would make with the existing Bucs roster, who he would target in free agency and the trade market, and which handful of potential first-round prospects he’s looking at. I would get his thoughts on Winston’s future in Tampa Bay. Is he still sold on his long-term potential, or does he want to move on and find a new starting QB?
And finally, it should be noted that one of Licht’s best moves was keeping director of football administration Mike Greenberg on the staff. Greenberg was originally hired by Dominik, and has done a fantastic job of managing the Bucs’ salary cap. The Glazers know first hand what bad salary cap management looks like.
They saw McKay send this franchise into salary cap hell after the Super Bowl with some really bad contract extensions that were unwarranted and unnecessary, and then saw Allen part ways with Bucs legends like John Lynch and Warren Sapp due to cap reasons in favor of washed up offensive tackles Todd Steussie and Derrick Deese and a running back on the decline in Charlie Garner. Regardless of who is running the show next year, if I’m the Glazers, I’m making sure Greenberg stays at One Buccaneer Place. Licht was quick to recognize Greenberg’s astute cap management skills and those two have teamed up to do some really great extensions over the years.
Is all of this enough to keep Licht, or do the Glazers want to gamble that someone can do a better job?
Sometimes things look bleak for a year before they turn around. Tampa Bay’s offense struggled mightily in the red zone last year and the Bucs had trouble scoring, only reaching the 30-point mark three times in 2017. Thanks to their prolific offense, the Bucs have already topped the 30-point mark three times with four games remaining and they’re averaging almost a touchdown more this year than they did last year.
Jackson’s signing looked like a waste a year ago when he caught 50 passes for 668 yards and four scores. Now he’s already 82 yards and two touchdowns ahead of where he was last year with four games left. The Bucs are the only team in the league with five players with 500 yards receiving or more and six players with four touchdowns or more this season.
Tampa Bay doesn’t have an offense – Licht has built an arsenal.
What could be done to improve the Bucs defense in a year? If it can reduce its allowed scoring average of 29.6 points per game by at least a touchdown next year to 22 points per game and maintain a scoring average of close to 28 points per game, a quick turnaround could be in order with the right additions.
Do the Glazers trust Licht to make those calls?
Perhaps more importantly, do they trust themselves to find a general manager that is significantly better than Licht?