TAMPA — Based on five straight losses and the 4-11 record, Dirk Koetter had every reason to suspect he may be coaching his last game for the Bucs on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
After all, the Glazer family, which owns the team, has averaged the firing (and hiring) of a head coach every two years for the past decade.
But Friday afternoon, general manager Jason Licht walked into Koetter’s office to personally deliver the kind of news from the team’s owners that Koetter can celebrate on New Year’s Eve, win or lose: The Bucs are sticking with their head coach for 2018.
Whether the Bucs believe Koetter, who is 13-18 after two seasons, is the best choice or they simply couldn’t find anyone better, remains to be seen.
For several months, Koetter, 58, has had to endure speculation that Jon Gruden, the Bucs’ Super Bowl-winning coach, may leave ESPN’s Monday Night Football and return to the sideline at Raymond James Stadium. Gruden, who led the Bucs to their only Super Bowl title in his first season, 2002, and was fired after the 2008 season, was inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor on Dec. 18.
Koetter, 58, has three years remaining on his contract. But it’s the three years he has spent developing quarterback Jameis Winston, including one as offensive coordinator, which likely carried the most weight.
Retaining Koetter is an acknowledgement that Winston’s injured throwing shoulder was a major reason for the team’s collapse. He struggled to play three games with an AC sprain before missing three others.
Over the four weeks since returning from his injury, Winston leads the NFL in passer rating (114.5) and yards per attempt (9.25) while ranking third in completion percentage (72), fourth in yards (1,221) and tied for the fourth most touchdown passes with eight.
"Obviously, I’m very grateful to the Glazer family of their support,’’ Koetter said Friday night on his weekly radio show. "But I think that anything further on my status or the status of the staff or what we’re going to do in the future should wait until after the game on Sunday.
"Everybody is evaluated at the end of the year, including me, and we’ll start that process come Monday.’’
Both Winston and Koetter denied a recent report on NFL.com that their relationship ‘‘was in a bad place.’’ In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the Bucs’ No. 1 overall pick in 2015 is progressing nicely.
Koetter was the Bucs offensive coordinator when Winston came to the NFL. As head coach, he 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. We spend so much time together — me, him, (quarterbacks coach Mike) Bajakian and those other quarterbacks — it’s like a family. Everybody has their different characteristics, but at the end of the day we all love each other."
Playing Weeks 6-9 while injured, Winston went 65 for 105 (61.9 percent) passing for 722 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions for a passer rating of 79.9. Since returning from injury at Green Bay on Dec. 3, he is 95-for-132 passing (72 percent) for 1,221 yards with eight touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 114.5. Winston’s 302 yards per game passing average since returning ranks first in NFL ahead of Tom Brady (292 yards).
"The numbers are so dramatic. I think, like a lot of stuff, that is a hard thing to measure because no one really knows,’’ Koetter said. "A shoulder injury to a quarterback, ‘Okay, does it affect him five percent? Does it affect him 10 percent?’ At some percent there, he wouldn’t have played. The doctors wouldn’t have cleared him to play. So, it’s a hard thing to judge, but the numbers are so dramatic. When you talk to Jameis about that, he’s got a couple other things that he would point to, but it’s really hard other than health — I mean, he is healthier and that is the main difference."
The fact that Licht delivered the news would indicate that he will return next season as well. The Bucs picked up a one-year option for 2018 on Licht’s contract at the start of the year.
The Bucs will likely own a top-five pick in the NFL draft and have a number of needs, particularly on defense.
"We’ve got things we have to do better to win games,’’ Koetter said. "Like (not) turning the ball over and scoring in the red zone, things that get you beat no matter who you are. But I still think we’re a lot closer than maybe can realize. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m making excuses at all. Right now, let’s get this last one against New Orleans and we’ll start worrying about next year right after that.’’