TAMPA — It was a brutal year. That’s how general manager Jason Licht views the Bucs’ 2017 season.
Start with Hard Knocks and the surrounding expectations, some he embraced and others he "cringed at." They all went unfulfilled, mostly due to injuries, including the right shoulder sprain suffered by quarterback Jameis Winston.
Monday dawned with the Titans and coach Mike Mularkey mutually agreeing to part ways two days after losing to the Patriots 35-14 in an AFC division playoff game. An hour or so later, Licht defended the Bucs’ decision to keep coach Dirk Koetter and his entire staff following a 5-11 mess.
"The whole year, just the expectations were — not set by us — it was just something I cringed at," Licht said. "Of course, you want positive things written about us, but when the expectations are we’ve got these weapons and now we’re going to score 50 points a game, it’s just not that easy.
"I think these guys are going to learn a lot from this season. I know we only finished with five wins, but there’s nobody walking around here thinking anything but good things about next year. Everybody is excited about it."
More about 2018 later. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, his first since the season ended, Licht was candid about the Bucs’ failures and their plans to fix the many problem areas on the team.
Winston was ‘not the same guy’
As they typically do, the Bucs’ fortunes started with Winston, who missed three games with a shoulder injury and played hurt in three others.
"Number one I would say that — and I’m not using any of these as excuses — the injury to the quarterback early in the year, he gets knocked out at Arizona," Licht said. "We trust our doctors, we trust the multiple opinions. We sent him out to see the best of the best, including our people, and we wouldn’t have put him out there if we thought that he could reinjure it. We didn’t think he could do worse damage to it. But clearly, not the same guy until late in the year when we did rest him and he came back and played. I think anytime when you have your quarterback go down, it’s just not going to be the same."
Doug Martin stymied the run game
Licht pinpointed two obvious areas of disappointment — the lack of a consistent rushing attack and the inability to rush the passer. The Bucs finished 27th in the NFL with 90.6 yards rushing per game. For the fourth time in five years, Doug Martin failed to rush for even 500 yards.
"I think the lack of, or having a hard time getting the run game going was … you know, Doug just didn’t have … he just wasn’t ever the same," Licht said. "And it wasn’t until late that Peyton (Barber) kind of arrived and things started going a little bit better with him, starting with the Green Bay game and on and on."
Spence and Hargreaves
The Bucs also were last in the NFL in sacks with 22, a big reason why the team was 3-7 in one-score games. Licht also said a dropoff in performance by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who lost his starting job and did not have an interception before a hamstring injury ended his season, was a big factor.
Licht admitted the Bucs banked on the improvement of defensive end Noah Spence, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and played only three games. They were hoping Jacquies Smith would recover from an ACL injury.
"So there’s a lot of reasons behind it, but also that’s an area where it’s just not easy to go to the defensive line tree and pick guys," Licht said. "You know, it’s a little difficult."
Spence and defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu are the only defensive linemen taken by the Bucs in the draft in four years under Licht, who defended his record in that area.
"… We do a lot of work on the defensive linemen every year," Licht said. "There’s been a lot of defensive linemen that I liked and hoped to get, it just didn’t work out."
Confidence in coaching staff
The Bucs have picked up the club options on all their assistant coaches for 2018, although Licht indicated there could still be some "tweaks." Overall, he said keeping the continuity of the coaching staff was the best way to go. The biggest needs for 2018 are on defense, Licht said.
"We’ve been pretty heavy offense," Licht said. "It’s the way things fell. We wanted to surround our quarterback with good players. Now it’s a little bit more of a challenging phase right now to concentrate on trying to build that defense up.
"But as bad as everybody wants to say the defense was, we did have moments. At this point last year, we were being lauded for the best offseason move of keeping Mike Smith after a historic turnaround in 2016. And now we had a year where I’ve been on record saying it — it was brutal. But you know, you don’t just forget how to coach. You know, in the past the team has been criticized for making changes too fast. For wiping the slate clean and starting over. In this day and age, it’s understandable that people seem to want instant change.
"We feel like it’s continuity, after a deep dive here in the off-season of what the issues were, we know what they were (and) we all think we can get better … the answers are here in terms of the coaches, the personnel people and we have a lot of good players we feel like in this locker room that can turn this thing around."