TAMPA — Dirk Koetter will be 57 when he makes his NFL head coaching debut Sunday, an age when many careers are winding down rather than ramping up. He doesn't have time for nonsense, which is why the curly haired boss of the Bucs prefers straight talk.
So when Koetter was asked how good his team is, he didn't hesitate. "I think they're better than most people give us credit for," Koetter said from his office at One Buc Place.
"When I got this job, I knew in my heart I think we're a more talented team than people give us credit for. I still think that. I think we added some really good pieces through free agency and the draft (in the offseason). But you've still got to put it together 16 times during the fall."
Though the past isn't always a prologue in the NFL, the Bucs have managed to remain wretchedly consistent recently. They have finished last in the NFC South six of the past seven years, including five straight. The Bucs haven't won the division since 2007.
But as the Bucs begin the season at Atlanta on Sunday, trying to improve from last year's 6-10, Koetter has a franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston, three years of productive drafts and a roster fortified by free agency.
"The thing that any coach probably undervalues is how good everybody else is," Koetter said. "Put it in perspective. Six hundred really good football players got cut. Six hundred. You go from there being no good players on the street to all of a sudden, look at that waiver wire. Six hundred good players. That tells you how competitive this league is.
"So do I think we're a deeper team, a more talented team than we were a year ago? Yes. Probably all 31 other teams are saying the same thing."
Not everyone is convinced the Bucs are better. CBS Sports' Pete Prisco predicted Tampa Bay will be 5-11 and finish tied for last in the NFC South. However, his colleague Jason LaCanfora believes the Bucs are one of the sleeper teams.
"The thing is, it really doesn't matter what's going on outside," Winston said, "who's doubting us or even who's for us. What matters is the 63 guys that we have in that locker room and the support from our fans, because we're really in this together.
"You're judged on wins and losses. The more wins we can put out there, obviously, the more confident we can be and we just can see where this thing can go."
Ending an eight-year playoff drought won't be easy for the Bucs, who are just trying to the close the gap on three-time defending division champion Carolina.
Winston led the way a year ago by passing for 4,042 yards and 23 touchdowns, and rushing for six more scores. Also helped by running back Doug Martin, the league's second-leading rusher last year with 1,402 yards, and receiver Mike Evans, the Bucs set a franchise record for total yards and finished fifth in the 32-team league in average yards per game on offense.
Defensively, the Bucs are still constructed around four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. But defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who coached the Falcons from 2008-14, should have an edge in Sunday's game at Atlanta. The additions Koetter is so excited about include free agent cornerback Brent Grimes and defensive end Robert Ayers. The draft this year brought cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive end Noah Spence.
"Since I got here in 2013, each year we increased, as far as production and the way we've played," defensive end William Gholston said. "It's an extremely exciting thing to see to really have a chance to get it rolling for 2016."
The Bucs swept the Falcons last season, and with a road game in Week 2 at Arizona, Koetter has emphasized starting fast against a division opponent on the road.
"The main goal is to go there, play our best game and get a win," Winston said. "Teams are judged on wins and losses. No matter what happens throughout the game, if you get a win, people ignore everything else."