TAMPA —The draft had just ended in April and the Bucs were celebrating a rookie class that included Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who unexpectedly fell to them with the 19th overall pick. With camera lights glaring, coach Dirk Koetter was asked what he wanted the identity of his team to be.
He answered in straight-forward Koetter fashion: a little blunt, very brash and barely printable:
"A badass football team!" Koetter said. "How's that?"
This wasn't a stomp-off-the-dais rant that has blasted NFL coaches from Jim Mora to Herm Edwards into news conference infamy. It's also not a colorful adjective that Koetter wants hung around his players' necks for 2017.
He immediately attempted to explain.
"Our whole thing is about competing," Koetter said. "Just going out there and competing because we know we have a talented football team. There's a lot of other talented football teams, starting right in our own division. I think our players have a really good buy-in. Our guys are on point with what we need to accomplish.
"This isn't the time of year where you need to give those guys a big pep talk about what we're going to be. We're a team that's building, a team that's getting better, and we're trying to chip away at it every day."
Loren Elliott | Times
Rookies report to training camp Tuesday with the full squad returning to work Thursday at One Buc Place. The first workout Friday is open to the public.
Bucs players and coaches will be greeted by a crew of 30 from HBO and NFL Films to record 350 hours of video each week for the next five weeks for Hard Knocks.
It already was going to be hard for Koetter's team to fly under the radar following a 9-7 record in 2016, its first winning season since 2010. The Bucs have not reached the playoffs in nine years, but they're viewed as one of those teams on the cusp of competing for an NFC South title behind quarterback Jameis Winston.
Are the Bucs on their way to becoming the kind of football team Koetter wants? That's a topic open for debate, but players such as left tackle Donovan Smith feed off the confidence and counsel of their head coach.
"It means a lot. Especially coming from him," Donovan Smith said. "A badass team means someone is going to go out there and fight. Grit. Down to the nitty gritty and go after it. Lean on teams. Get after them. Make them feel us all four quarters. When I hear that, that's what it means to me."
Bucs Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks says Koetter is executing the second phase of a cultural change for the Bucs.
Although Koetter's phrase was never used to describe Brooks or his Super Bowl XXXVII championship team, similar metaphors were used to describe that team on their journey to winning a title.
"A mentally tough football team that was hard and poised, and in any situation, we looked to make the best out of any situation," Brooks said. "Not letting the 'woodshed' that we worked in be a distraction but be a rallying cry. Pound the rock. The metaphors, whatever you want to call yourself, to have that winning attitude that results in the win column.
"That's what Coach Dirk is building toward. His first job was changing the culture under his leadership and his goals. This is the next phase of the cultural change, the attitude of resilience and of a winning football team. They've been on the brink the last two years of cracking playoffs and needing to win down the stretch. This is the next phase and I can remember being at that point where you're right there. We thought we were there and were disappointed in the playoffs."
• • •
General manager Jason Licht has re-shaped the Bucs' roster in the past four years. Only seven players — Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Demar Dotson, Doug Martin, Will Gholston, Luke Stocker and Keith Tandy — remain from when Licht walked into the team's facility in the spring of 2014.
"We're doing this together; we need everybody to stay together and stay focused on the plan," Licht said. "I think that that message has really taken in from what Dirk is telling the team. We want, obviously, very competitive guys that want to win and want to win at all costs. That's the identity that I want every player to have and Dirk as the head coach wants every player to have on this roster.
"Dirk has a rare blend of being direct and calculated and genuine in the message he delivers. It's got a theme and every week. The guys I thought are the best at it is Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and Bruce Arians. They have a fresh message every week. Dirk is right there with them."
So much of the Bucs' identity belongs to Winston, who is coming off back-to-back 4,000-yard passing seasons. But badass football teams don't turn the football over, and Winston has done that 42 times in his first two seasons with 33 interceptions and nine lost fumbles. By contrast, Super Bowl LI teams New England and Atlanta each turned the football over only 11 times in 2016, fewest in the league.
To help Winston, the Bucs have surrounded him with improved weapons such as Redskins free agent receiver DeSean Jackson, Howard and receiver Chris Godwin, a third-round pick from Penn State. Those additions, combined with three-time 1,000-yard receiver Mike Evans and Cameron Brate, who led all tight ends with eight touchdown passes a year ago, potentially could be the most explosive collection of playmakers in team history.
The Bucs also made some changes on the offensive line in hopes of fulfilling Koetter's vision. Ali Marpet, who started every game his first two NFL seasons at right guard, is making the transition to center. That will provide a bigger, more athletic player in front of Winston. And it allows the Bucs to play J.R. Sweezy, who spent last season in injured reserve following back surgery, at right guard. At 6-5, 300 pounds, Sweezy is known to play a little nasty.
"He's an extremely aggressive player," Marpet said. "He's 100 mph and flies off the ball. That's the edge he brings to us."
Andres Leiva | Times
Defensively, the Bucs made an effort to get bigger — and badder — at defensive tackle. They signed Redskins free agent Chris Baker (6-2, 320) and drafted USC defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (6-1, 320). The player with the biggest upside may be defensive end Noah Spence.
"I think he's a player who could be a 15-plus sack guy this year," defensive end Robert Ayers said of Spence.
The Bucs are banking on 34-year-old cornerback Brent Grimes (four INTs) not tailing off and second-year cornerback Vernon Hargreaves stepping up. The safety position got an infusion of speed with the addition of Justin Evans, the second-round pick from Texas A&M.
The Bucs have a bad boy punter in Bryan Anger, who was among the league's best last season. The battle for the place-kicking job between Roberto Aguayo and veteran Nick Folk will be mesmerizing.
"Everybody is thinking big right now," Koetter said. "Potential? Potential gets you beat."
• • •
Consider what Koetter's team has to overcome to realize that gritty, gutsy identity. The Falcons and Panthers won the NFC the past two seasons, led by MVPs Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. But they are not the only Super Bowl quarterbacks the Bucs will face. Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady visit Tampa Bay. They face Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay in December.
Koetter already has a history of inspiring, albeit sometimes profane, declarations to his team. At 58, Koetter isn't going to mince words or waste time. That means he's prone to some emotional outbursts.
Last year, following a 28-21 win at San Diego, the Bucs' fourth straight to go to 7-5, Koetter praised his team for overcoming injuries in the game and told them the lesson was to keep hanging in there.
Loren Elliott | Times
"Hey, Victory Monday. Let's remember though when we go in there, right back to this," Koetter said pressing his index finger against his lips. "Shhh. Right back into this. Speak softly and carry a big mother (expletive) stick!"
The Bucs went on to win five straight games but missed the playoffs by the third tiebreaker after consecutive losses at Dallas and New Orleans before a win in the finale against Carolina.
Now their biggest opponent may be expectations.
"We've got to control what we can control," Koetter. "We can't control — good or bad — what's said. The NFL is popular. It's great people nationally are talking about us. But there's 31 other teams that got better.
"Hey, you want to be talked about. It beats the alternative. There's going to come a day when we've got to back it up and that day is coming Sept. 10."
Staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report. Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud.