TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have inspired a small amount of confidence after they kept it close in their 24-21 loss Monday night to the Atlanta Falcons, but when a team finishes the season with at least 10 losses it's rare that changes aren't made. Almost always, someone has to pay the price. Here's a look at who that could be:
Head coach Dirk Koetter
Dirk Koetter's job performance should be measured by the performance of his offense and quarterback Jameis Winston. That's why he was promoted to head coach after one season as offensive coordinator. It's no question that Winston's shoulder injury had a negative impact on the offense this year. But even if you factor in last year, when the Bucs went 9-7, Koetter's offense has averaged 19.63 offensive points per game in that span, 23rd in the league. When he was offensive coordinator with the Falcons from 2012 to 2014, his offenses averaged 22.85 points per game (the Falcons went 23-25 in that span). Those aren't dazzling numbers, especially when you look at the rosters for both squads.
While Koetter's playcalling has come under scrutiny this year, a number of the Bucs' issues have also boiled down to execution. Koetter didn't fumble the ball at the Atlanta 5-yard line in the second quarter Monday, or on third-and-1 two weeks ago against the Detroit Lions. He didn't inadvertently pitch the ball to Dean Lowry as he was being sacked, setting up a 62-yard touchdown for the Green Bay Packers. Those plays all boil down to execution, but it is his job to not only put players in the best possible position to make plays but to enforce the details that make flawless execution possible.
In the past three weeks, with Winston back, the Bucs have lost two games by three points or less and one game in overtime. Players are still competing hard, which is a positive -- especially when you consider that an absurd amount were injured Monday. But what can't and shouldn't be overlooked is that the Bucs have not won a game in the NFC South this year, joining the New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers as the only teams that are winless within their divisions. The Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts have been without their starting quarterbacks for extended periods this year and have all been able to manage at least one divisional win with their backups.
Unless ownership sees a vast improvement in these final games or unless they realize that they were too quick to act in firing previous head coaches after two years, there's nothing that warrants keeping Koetter around.
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith
Bucs fans rejoiced last year when Mike Smith signed an extention to remain defensive coordinator instead of leaving for a head-coaching job. His defense was a huge reason the Bucs were able to orchestrate a late-season turnaround and go on a five-game win streak in 2016. In the final eight games of the season, when they went 6-2, they allowed an average of just 17.13 points per game, fourth in the league. Their defense led the league in defensive touchdowns (three), interceptions (13) and takeaways (18), and they finished the season with the league's best third-down defense, allowing just 34.4 percent conversions.
In 2017, however, they have taken several steps back. With two games remaining, the Bucs are surrendering 24 points per game, 22nd in the league. They've done a nice job taking the ball away; they have 15 takeaways over the past eight games, tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars for second most in the NFL, and their eight interceptions are tied for seventh most in the league. But this season, they've allowed opponents to convert 49.2 percent of third downs. They've given up 114 explosive plays on defense this year (35 rushing, 79 passing), second most in the NFL behind the 3-11 Colts. Going back to 2001 and measuring all teams' sack numbers per season through Week 15, the Bucs' 18 sacks are tied for the fifth fewest in that span.
As injuries have piled up, it's easier to give Smith a pass in these final games, but when his unit was at or near full strength, it was just as bad, despite having what appeared to be an upgraded roster at safety and along the defensive line. They have not been able to pressure the quarterback. Players have struggled with gap integrity all season. Balls have sailed over defensive backs' heads. They are still routinely blowing coverages.
To be fair, the offense has not put the defense in a good position all year and Bucs' opponents have had the league's 11th-highest time of possession.
If there's a convenient and most obvious scapegoat here, it's Smith and his crew.
General manager Jason Licht
Jason Licht has had some home run hits and some epic misses. He will never be able to shake off the Roberto Aguayo draft selection, which will go down as one of the franchise's worst draft moves. That says a lot for an organization that accidentally selected Sean Farrell instead of Booker Reese with the 17th overall pick in 1982 under Hugh Culverhouse, and used a second-round draft pick on Dexter Jackson out of Appalachian State under Bruce Allen despite him being a fourth-rounder on their draft boards.
Licht also used a second-round draft pick to take tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who had already pleaded guilty to a DUI charge and caused an accident in college, then cut him at the beginning of the 2016 season after another DUI arrest, but credit him and the organization for cutting their losses quickly.
As far as first-round draft picks, Winston has had moments in which he's played like a franchise quarterback, although the league's investigation of an alleged groping incident could impact his availability next year. Receiver Mike Evans was selected seventh overall in the 2014 draft and he's notched three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Tight end O.J. Howard looked like a great get when he fell to the Bucs 19th overall, and while he had a productive season with six touchdowns it felt like he just wasn't targeted enough to justify the selection.
It's tough to justify Howard's pick with how badly the Bucs struggled to run the ball this year behind Doug Martin. Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt were all still on the board. Instead, the Bucs put their faith in Martin and opted to wait until the fifth round to select Jeremy McNichols, who didn't make the 53-man roster and isn't even on the team anymore. It's also hard to justify spending an 11th overall pick on cornerback Vernon Hargreaves in 2016 if he's only going to be a nickel, although Smith believes he will play on the outside at some point. You'd just like to see some return on that investment now, but that does fall on coaching, too.
The Bucs got a ton of value in linebacker Kwon Alexander in the fourth round and Kendell Beckwith in the third round, with both of those picks helping forge the Bucs' strongest unit of 2017. Grabbing Ali Marpet out of tiny Hobart College in the second round in 2015 was also a very good move. Safety Justin Evans is looking more and more like a really good move despite questions about his tackling in college.
As far as free agents, Winston's injury made the signing of backup Ryan Fitzpatrick a smart move. It took them two more tries before they finally got their kicking situation shored up with Patrick Murray. The DeSean Jackson connection with Winston hasn't blossomed the way people had hoped. Signing safety T.J. Ward to a one-year deal for $5 million just to rotate wasn't very smart.
Overall, Licht has done a better job evaluating talent than his predecessors Mark Dominik and Bruce Allen, and it may warrant him sticking around longer, hence why the Bucs quietly picked up the 2018 option on his contract this summer. If they do part ways with Koetter, whoever they bring in has to be able to work with Licht. Not every head-coaching candidate wants that type of arrangement.