In one month, Dirk Koetter has gone from coach on a warm-to-hot seat to Coach of the Year candidate. Four straight victories will do that for a guy. As part of our Bucs Quarterly Report, here's how the Tampa Bay Times' Bucs coverage team grades Koetter's performance:
Rick Stroud, @NFLStroud
The last time the Bucs won five in a row was the Super Bowl season of 2002. So if Tampa Bay beats New Orleans at Raymond James Stadium Sunday, consider what kind of a rare run they are on.
Clock management has improved. The defense identified communication as the issue and fixed it. Finally, going 5-1 on the road is an elite accomplishment but they need to even that at home. The ability to weather injuries to key players has been impressive. If the Bucs win 10 or make the playoffs, he should get coach of the year consideration. Grade: B
Tom Jones, @tomwjones
He has gone from possible hot seat to coach-of-the-year candidate.
What a change we've seen in the past month. At the halfway point of the season, we all graded Koetter's performance and it was full of Cs and even a D. His play-calling was brought into question. And he was coaching a team that seemed headed to yet another losing season.
Much of Tampa Bay's success in the past month can be attributed to Koetter. He has been steady in his play-calling and worked around some major injuries. He also seems to be working extremely well with defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, putting together game plans that have helped Tampa Bay knock off some of the NFL's best teams (See: Chiefs, Seahawks). Grade: B.
Martin Fennelly, @mjfennelly
The man has been coming on like a locomotive. To start the season, it was quite easy to think the man was in over his head, what with game management and leaving Jameis in at the end of that loss in Arizona.
Now look. We once thought Koetter was as focused as a clenched fist. Maybe we still do. But the man has this team playing loose and confident. These young Bucs aren't afraid to make mistakes. They just passed a major hurdle. After pulling off two big upsets, they flew across the country and didn't let down at all. That's preparation. That's coaching. Grade: B
Greg Auman, @gregauman
Most people saw the Bucs as a 7-9 or 8-8 team, taking a step forward but not necessarily making the playoffs. That still could be their final outcome, but for Koetter to push through the injuries the Bucs have faced, and to get them to improbable road win after road win — at Kansas City, especially — is a testament to him believing in his vision and his players.
He's also shown a smart trust in Mike Smith, whose defense was wildly disappointing just a month ago, giving up 1,087 yards in back-to-back losses to the Raiders and Falcons. But the defense clicked, started forcing takeaways at the same time that the offense stopping giving the ball away. This four-game win streak has been incredible for the Bucs, who haven't had a reason to be excited in December in quite some time.
Last year's 6-6 team had a fleeting moment of promise, but lost its last four games so badly it cost the head coach his job. This time, there's a more concrete positive momentum around the team, and if it continues, Koetter will deservedly draw national interest as a Coach of the Year candidate. Oakland's Jack Del Rio, who gave Koetter his first NFL job, is a more likely winner, but it doesn't take away from Koetter's impressive first season as an NFL head coach. Grade: A.
Thomas Bassinger, @tometrics
At the halfway point, I gave Koetter a D because I felt his game and clock management had cost the team opportunities. Winston's play at the time was erratic, and the defense was on pace to allow more points than it did last season.
If I were grading him on the last four games, he'd get an A. After the Thursday night loss to the Falcons, the Bucs could have crumbled, but Koetter — and Jameis Shakespeare Winston — have held the team, the family together. A turnaround seemed unlikely halfway through the season, but Tampa Bay is in the hunt for its first playoff berth since 2007.
Koetter realized Winston needed better pass protection, and he made the requisite adjustments. Grade: B-minus.
Ernest Hooper, @hoop4you
It's an old song Bucs fans have heard far too often. A promising season spirals out of control and the team limps home while the faithful begin looking at Mel Kiper's Big Board.
I found myself falling into the same trap, convinced the Bucs were headed for doom after woeful efforts against the Falcons and Bears. But Koetter found a way to right the ship during the 11-day break and now the team is contending. The Bucs should insist the league continue to play Thursday games. Grade: B