Two figures usually take the brunt of blame when a team fails: the quarterback, and the head coach. Though several other factors played into the disappointing season, head coach Dirk Koetter tops the list. From game-day management to play-calling and general coaching, Koetter failed the Buccaneers in 2017. Observers of the team noticed around mid-season that the Bucs offense was terribly predictable, and was missing underneath options for quarterback Jameis Winston to get quick passes off to. The issue was magnified once it became clear that Winston’s throwing shoulder was ailing.
Where Koetter struggled most was getting his offense into the end zone. The Buccaneers were eighth in red zone scoring attempts, but scored touchdowns on just 48% of those attempts, good for 24th in the NFL. Part of those struggles come from a lack of running game, but when you have O.J. Howard, Cam Brate, and Mike Evans you should always be among the best red zone scoring offenses in the league. To Koetter’s credit he still has a firm grasp on the soul of the Buccaneer locker room, but there’s no question that next season is his last chance to get things right.
We got hoodwinked by Doug. Again. Last off-season the Buccaneers chose to put all their chips in on Doug Martin, and avoided bringing in any significant competition aside from mid-round bust Jeremy McNicols. The plan was for a platoon of McNicols, Sims, and Barber to hold the line while Martin served his three game suspension. Martin came back to mixed success with a 74 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots, but over the next six games it became clear that Martin just couldn’t get the job done. Those red zone scoring woes that I mentioned earlier were largely a result of the Bucs complete lack of rushing attack with Doug.
As Martin continued to struggle, Dirk Koetter eventually opted to give Peyton Barber the bulk of carries, and the Auburn product was able to be much more effective. I was among the camp that wanted Martin to return this season, and strangely I still feel like he can be a good runner, but his time in Tampa is very clearly over with. The Bucs won’t get fooled again, and we can expect to see them hone in on a running back early in this year’s draft.
One of the biggest pick-ups last off-season for the Buccaneers was defensive tackle Chris Baker. The undrafted veteran had just put together three strong years with the Washington Redskins, and was expected to immediately help Gerald McCoy close the pocket on opposing quarterbacks. That dream was extremely short lived. Baker did practically nothing for the Bucs in 2017, aside from helping them lose to the Panthers in week 16 when he jumped off-sides to give Cam Newton an easy touchdown.
Baker finished the season with half a sack and 33 combined tackles. It was reported that Baker’s penalty against the Panthers and his jolly attitude afterwards triggered a locker room scuffle, which indicates to me that Big Baker will be playing for a new team next season. I don’t think that he suddenly became bad this year, but it’s clear that the Buccaneers and he are not a fit. Expect the Bucs to draft a defensive tackle at some point this spring.
Robert Ayers was a prized free agent acquisition by the Buccaneers two years ago, and was a steady contributor in his first season with the team, racking up 6.5 sacks in twelve games. Heading into 2017 the team had hopes that Ayers could stay healthy all year and apply pressure off the edge opposite Noah Spence, but everything quickly fell apart when Spence got hurt. Ayers wasn’t able to carry the load of the teams’ primary pass rusher, and eventually ended up on injured reserve. He tallied two sacks and 31 tackles on the season.
The Buccaneers can save money by moving on from Ayers this off-season, so I expect the Bucs will pounce on that opportunity as part of a defensive line purge. Injuries have plagued Ayers often over the last two seasons in Tampa, so perhaps a healthy off-season could mean a more effective 2018 Ayers, but I’d be very surprised to see the Bucs go that route. If this was indeed Ayer’s last season in Tampa, he’ll join a growing club of free agent busts on general manager Jason Licht’s record.
Dirk Koetter’s offense tanked the 2017 season for the Bucs, but Mike Smith’s defense wasn’t far behind in futility. As a unit they gave up the most yards per game in the entire league, and Smith’s defense has actually been ineffective for the majority of his two year tenure in Tampa, but a fluke five game winning streak in 2016 buoyed his reputation and was apparently enough to get him a third opportunity, as he’ll be returning next year.
In defense of Mike Smith, I doubt that any coordinator could have done much with the pool of talent the team had this year. Once Noah Spence went down there was no hope for pass rush, and that got hammered home once it became clear that Chris Baker and Robert Ayers weren’t going to be contributing. I can respect Jason Licht and the Glazers applying perspective to the situation, but in the cold, calculating world of the NFL it’s strange to see a defensive coordinator get so much rope with so little production. Mike Smith and Dirk Koetter are now tied at the hip, and will either sink or swim together in 2018.
"James Yarcho gives his thoughts on John Lynch’s finalist status for the Hall of Fame, and on those who aren’t…again. On this episode of the Locked on Bucs Podcast!"
So Buccaneer fans, those are this season’s winners and losers in my view. Who are yours? Did quarterback Jameis Winston deserve a spot on either list? What about Mike Evans, who had just one hundred yard effort on the season? Or perhaps everyone’s favorite safety Chris Conte!? For the last time this season, sound off with your take in the comments!