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Jones: Bucs kudos should start with Koetter

As the commissioner of baseball makes veiled threats about the Rays moving and the stumbling Lightning searches for goals without Steven Stamkos, we turn our attention to the Bucs.

You know, the red-hot (and really cool) team in Tampa Bay.

Bet you didn't see that coming.

A month ago, at the halfway point of the season, the Bucs were finding ways to lose games. They were 3-5, and a sixth straight losing season seemed like a lock.

Since then, the Bucs have found ways to win. They are 7-5 and tied for first place in the NFC South.

How did this happen?

Plenty of pats on the back to go around. From quarterback Jameis Winston to the rise to greatness of receiver Mike Evans to a suddenly stingy defense.

But the guy who really deserves a few nice words is coach Dirk Koetter.

At the halfway point of the season, the Tampa Bay Times did a midseason report card on Koetter. Six staff writers put Koetter on academic probation: two C's, three C-minuses and even a D.

Today, those same six writers were asked to grade Koetter at the three-quarters pole of the season. Koetter is now on the honor roll. He received an A, three B's and two B-minuses.

Midway through the season, the prevailing question around Koetter was, "Hey, do you think this guy might get fired after the season?"

Now, the question is, "Hey, do you think this guy could win NFC coach of the year?"

Did the 57-year-old suddenly get smarter in the past month?

Well, yeah.

Feels like it, anyway. Koetter is managing the clock better, helping his offense overcome key injuries, and he seems to have a nice quid pro quo kind of thing going with defensive coordinator Mike Smith. The offense and defense are working hand in hand to have the Bucs in the best position they've been this late in the season since 2010, when they finished 10-6.

In the past month, they've had two signature wins against powerhouses Kansas City and Seattle.

Now Tampa Bay is discussed on national shows such as ESPN's Around the Horn and NBC's Football Night in America.

"There's just a lot boiling, swirling around these guys right now," Koetter said. "And it's all positive. … We've gone from a team that didn't get a whole lot of attention to a team that's getting more. And hey, that's all great, but it doesn't do anything for you on Sunday.''

What has been most impressive is how the Bucs have flipped the script from the first half of the season.

Take the Rams game. Take the Raiders game. Both at home. Both should have been won.

But there were missed field goals and costly turnovers and drives that ended in punts instead of game-winning scores. And there were missed tackles that turned third downs into touchdowns.

Now look at the Bucs.

They scored 14 points against Seattle and easily won. They scored only one touchdown at Kansas City and comfortably won.

Then Sunday at San Diego. The offense sputtered. Roberto Aguayo missed another chip-shot field goal.

Yet the Bucs found a way to win, using the double-whammy of a great punt and a pick-six to turn the game and turn a loss into win.

That's what good teams do. They find ways to win even when they don't do everything particularly well. Coaching gets credit for that.

There's one month left and the road won't be easy.

In order to make the playoffs, the Bucs likely need to go 3-1. Maybe even 4-0. That won't be easy with two games against New Orleans, a trip to Dallas and a home finale against the Panthers.

But the Bucs will be playing relevant games in December thanks to a lot of things.

Starting with the head coach.

Jones: Bucs kudos should start with Koetter 12/06/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 7, 2016 6:24am]
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