For the past three years, Jameis Winston has had a lot of people in his ear. Family, friends, fans — they all have taken turns telling him what they thought he needed to hear. But the voice the Bucs quarterback has had to trust the most belongs to Dirk Koetter.
Koetter was the team’s offensive coordinator when Winston came to the NFL in 2015. As head coach, Koetter still is the play-caller and mentor entrusted to develop the franchise quarterback and fulfill his promise as a No. 1 overall pick.
"Dirk has been here (since) my first year," Winston said. "He came in — then he was the OC; as the head coach, it has been kind of different, but Dirk is the man. I think he has taught me a lot, especially just me playing quarterback. You just don’t understand that relationship in that quarterback room."
On Friday, Koetter and Winston learned that despite five straight losses and a 4-11 record this season, their relationship will continue.
General manager Jason Licht has had discussions each week with the Glazer family that owns the Bucs about Koetter, about the direction of the team, about the many factors that have combined to produce a disappointing season.
The critiques have been sharp but honest. Injuries, especially the one to Winston’s right shoulder this season, have been a big factor. Resources have been spent on the offense, to the detriment of the defense.
But the decision-makers kept coming to the same conclusion: Koetter, 9-7 in his first year as coach, deserved the chance to return in 2018.
They agreed the outcome of today’s season finale against the Saints wasn’t going to change their opinion. The only decision left was when to tell him.
So Friday afternoon, Licht walked into Koetter’s office and told him he was the coach for 2018.
There still are evaluations to do with the entire coaching staff, which will begin Monday. But Licht believed Friday’s news would provide positive energy for players to end the week.
Of course, the news might not sit well with disillusioned fans, who thought the buzzards were circling. They want instant gratification over growth.
Fueling the fire-Koetter movement was the belief that Jon Gruden, who led the Bucs to their only Super Bowl title in the 2002 season and was inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor on Dec. 18, was considering leaving ESPN’s Monday Night Football for a return to the sideline.
But both sides insisted Saturday that there was never one discussion about Gruden coaching the Bucs.
No failed negotiations. No unrealistic demands. It didn’t happen.
"Bucs are in good shape," Gruden said in a text Saturday.
The truth is that Koetter and Licht have a lot of work to do.
Licht, who had a club option in his contract for 2018 that the team picked up this year, has to focus on rebuilding the mostly neglected defense with pass rushers and defensive backs through the draft and free agency. The team is last in the NFL with 20 sacks, a prime reason why it can’t close out games and is 2-7 in those decided by one score.
The Bucs also have to get better at running the ball. They will move on from running back Doug Martin, but the offensive line has to do a better job of being physical and moving people.
There could be changes on Koetter’s staff. He might decide to give up the play-calling. Some believe defensive coordinator Mike Smith will be fired or at least reassigned, but Koetter likely will prefer to let him soldier on.
The biggest improvement might have to come from Winston.
Since returning from his injury, he has never thrown the ball better. The past four weeks, he leads the league in passer rating (114.5) and yards per attempt (9.25) while ranking third in completion percentage (72), fourth in passing yards (1,221) and tied for fourth in passing touchdowns (8).
But when Winston came into the league, there were two glaring warning signs: He was careless with the ball; and he lacked maturity. While Winston, 23, has cut down on his interception rate by 35 percent this season, for the second year in a row he is tied for the league lead in lost fumbles.
Emotionally, Winston’s outbursts have increased with the frustration of losing. He also is under investigation for allegations that he groped a female Uber driver in Arizona in 2016.
"There is a lot to put on a guy’s plate that can paralyze you if you are not careful (with) a young quarterback," offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. "It can. You’ve got the weight of a franchise that is dying to win, and it is put on him a lot and having to fight through all of that."
But fight on, they will. Koetter and Winston, together for at least one more year.