TAMPA — He hears it. He reads it. It bothers him. How could it not?
Black Monday in the NFL is fast approaching Jan. 1, and Bucs coach Dirk Koetter, with his team 4-11 entering Sunday’s season finale against the Saints, knows he may not have a very Happy New Year.
The Bucs are in the midst of their second five-game losing streak this season and are trying to avoid going winless in the NFC South.
A victory would give the Saints the division title. There’s nothing worse than watching a rival celebrate on your field while they hand out those championship hats and T-shirts.
Meanwhile, there has been constant speculation since about the middle of the season that Jon Gruden, who coached the Bucs from 2002-08, won Super Bowl XXXVII and is in the team’s Ring of Honor, would consider leaving ESPN to return to the sideline in Tampa Bay.
Despite that, Koetter said he has not had any talks with the Glazer family about whether he will return in 2018.
"I do not have discussions with them about that, no," Koetter said.
Koetter admits the constant speculation about his future has become a personal distraction.
"Well of course. You know, it’s your life. It’s your life," Koetter said. "It’s what you do. So, just flip it around and of course it is (a distraction). But we’re all — players and coaches — we’re paid to do a job, and you try to do it to the best of your ability. That’s all you can do."
Sure, it’s all part of the coaching business, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Koetter was 57 when he was hired last year as a first-time NFL head coach. He thought the opportunity had passed him by. If he isn’t asked to return in 2018, it’s possible he never gets another one.
Injuries have been a big part of the story, particularly since quarterback Jameis Winston missed three games with a sprained right shoulder and struggled through three other games trying to play hurt.
But since returning to the lineup in a 26-20 overtime loss at Green Bay on Dec. 3, Winston has played his best football, and the past two games his passer efficiency rating has been over 130.
Whether Winston has improved or not will be part of the decision with the Glazers involving Koetter.
"There’s a million ways you can slice up statistics, and if you look at the games Jameis was healthy this year, his statistics are awfully good," Koetter said. "It’s hard to say which games he was entirely healthy and which ones he wasn’t, but we know there was a part there in the middle where he wasn’t. I think health is the No. 1 thing with Jameis’ recent performance, and then he’s been making excellent decisions."
Koetter has reason to be nervous. Most NFL owners don’t buy green bananas. Certainly, the Glazers haven’t shown much patience with the other three coaches they hired since firing Gruden three weeks after the 2008 season. Raheem Morris was gone after three seasons. Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith were shown the door after two.
If you’re a head coach in the NFL, you also feel responsible for the coaching staff. It’s not just Koetter’s life that will be affected. There are 23 assistants on Koetter’s staff. That’s 23 households that could be uprooted, some with children.
Look, no one is going to start a collection for Koetter and his staff at GoFundMe.com. They chose this profession. When a 9-7 record in 2016 becomes 13-18 a year later, you’re either unlucky, doing something wrong or both.
In the past, the Bucs have usually had some other obvious factors in their decision to fire coaches. Gruden was going to demand too much money for free agents. Morris seemed over his head. Schiano had too toxic of a relationship with players and lost the locker room. Smith didn’t get it done on defense.
With Koetter, the bottom line is just the bottom line. He’s a good guy. The Glazers like him. He can coach a little offense. But something — really, just W’s — is missing.
In the meantime, he just wants to do his job. It’s all he can do.