INDIANAPOLIS — The confession was complete and contrite, delivered in quiet tones at Lucas Oil Stadium where exactly one year earlier, the evaluations began. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter admitted he was one of the last people in the organization to be convinced they picked the right quarterback. Then the offensive coordinator, Koetter leaned more favorably toward Marcus Mariota for the No. 1 overall pick because of the film he studied and his long association with Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, who told him they were "idiots," for choosing the wrong Heisman Trophy winner.
"I was probably one of the last people holding out going through the whole process last year. There was plenty of other people convinced way before I was that this was the guy,'' Koetter said of Winston Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine. "And all the things people were telling us, all the way up to (Florida State coach) Jimbo Fisher and I've said this before, I've heard all that before. I've heard all those superlatives thrown around.
"I was only a holdout in that we were basically comparing two really good players: Jameis and Marcus Mariota. Both really, really good players. And my job that I was assigned was more the film evaluation part. So other people were evaluating all the other staff. But as we got to pro days and we got around the other coaches, you've got to remember, (Oregon coach) Mark Helfrich was a (grad assistant) for me at Oregon and was a quarterbacks coach at Boise and Idaho State. Mark is telling me, 'Marcus Mariota, you guys are idiots, you're not going to draft Marcus Mariota? You guys are stupid.' Well, that's a guy I'm really close to. Now, you've got to take that with a grain of salt the way you take Jimbo Fisher. But usually in this business, if you've worked with someone, you know if they're BS-ing you or not and I'm not saying anyone is. But I guess the biggest point here is it became clear that both guys had good intangibles.
"Until you've been in a season with someone and see what a guy will do when he's getting hit and when the game is on the line and see it this close … we had a couple really bad games early when Jameis comes off the field and you learn so much about Jameis during the season. What a worker he is, how much he cares about winning and cares about his teammates. I mean, Jameis made some plays with his legs that I was going, 'I never saw that coming.' He never showed me that in OTAs or training camp or preseason. I wasn't expecting him to run and dive over guys in the end zone or to make that run he made in that second Atlanta game. That's heart, that's willpower and desire to win. Now, I'm a true believer that Jameis is off the charts.''
Of course, Koetter is thrilled Winston proved him and a lot of detractors wrong, passing for 4,024 yards and accounting for 28 touchdowns (22 passing) while being named Rookie of the Year and selected to the Pro Bowl.
"Until you're actually in there for a full season and you see how this guy comes to work, he's in the facility at 5:45 in the morning, and you just see that really is him,'' Koetter said.
It didn't help matters when Winston's first NFL pass against the Titans was intercepted and returned for a touchdown while Mariota fired four touchdown passes in the Bucs 42-14 loss on opening day.
"It was tough,'' Koetter admits. "When Tennessee's offense was out there I was on the bench so I don't know how good that looked. I know how bad we looked, when the first pass of the game is a pick six. So I was looking at, my job is to find a way to help Jameis be successful, find a way to for us to move the ball and score points. And I failed. I failed in that game. So I know Jameis felt bad. Hell, I felt horrible. But we got better.''
For nearly a half hour Wednesday, Koetter outlined his plan for the Bucs in 2016. He also was very candid about the "awkward," circumstances that led to his hiring after Lovie Smith was fired three days following a loss at Carolina, their fourth in a row to end the season. Koetter learned of Smith's termination watching television while heavily medicated from hip replacement surgery.
Here, in his own words, is how Koetter looks back on the events that led to his hiring as Bucs' head coach and how he sees the team moving forward.
On the Bucs' messy divorce with Smith and his eventual hiring:
"I'm not going to lie, there's some awkwardness there,'' Koetter said. "I guess the one thing I would say, the timeline there, we play Carolina on that Sunday and everybody is in the office on that Monday having our end of season meetings with the players. Tuesday morning, the very next morning, I was in the hospital having my hip replaced. Then Wednesday night was the announcement on Lovie. I was home from the hospital but I was still medicated at the time and I found out like everybody else did. You know, during that whole time frame, I have an agent and it became clear I was going to have a chance with a couple other teams to be (considered as) a head coach. You know, where? Was I going to be a head coach somewhere else? Was I going to have a chance to be the coach in Tampa? Was I going to be the offensive coordinator in Tampa under someone else or was I going to coach my son's high school team (Berkeley Prep) as an assistant because (Berkeley coach) Dominick Ciao isn't going anywhere.
"So that's the awkward, uncomfortable side of this profession, when you get into the coaching change season. I said it in my press conference, everybody likes to talk about it, but when it's your life and your family in there, not just me but Lovie's and everybody's involved.''
Did he have to think twice about becoming the Bucs' coach?
"No. Because again, I was not part of that decision,'' Koetter said. "I was brought in to be the offensive coordinator and I will always appreciate Lovie for doing that and for letting myself and the offensive coaches do what we needed to do on offense. But once the decision was made, and again, I was as surprised as anyone, they're going to hire a new coach. They're going to hire a new coach and at that point I'm like anybody else, I don't know what my future is at that point. When you are on a team, you know the insides and outs of that team more than any other team. So of course, I wanted the opportunity if it was going to present itself because I think highly of our players and I think highly of Jason (Licht). There's all kinds of things when you talk about your family. I've got a son that's going to be a senior in high school. We just moved to Tampa a year ago. I've got a daughter that lives in Tampa. Of course I wanted to do it.''
On Winston needing to improve his completion percentage and deep ball accuracy:
"I would say consistency in his fundamentals,'' Koetter said. "Now, we're never going to have, we're not a dink and dunk team so we're not going to be a 70-percent completion team. We need to be in the low 60s and keep our explosives. I think we had 139 explosives last year, which if I'm not mistaken, tied us for the lead in the league. We preach explosives way more than we preach completions. But, sometimes you have to get a completion. I've read some of the things Jameis said, like Jameis did look at it too much as every play has to be a big play. In the NFL, we say we want explosives, but you have to know when the opportunities are there and as I always say, when to cut our losses and move on. So just mainly consistency with fundamentals and decision making.''
On how the defense will look under coordinator Mike Smith.
"In this day and age, because most teams are going to attack you with their quarterback, you've got to give the quarterback some different looks,'' Koetter said. "And anything I'm saying now is not a knock against what we did in the past because I wasn't involved in that anyway, so I didn't even really know. I think you have to be able to give the quarterback different looks and you've got to have everybody on the same page, whether you're on offense or defense you have to have everybody on the same page. Your front has to be equally connected with your back end. So that's what multiplicity is. It's giving the quarterback different looks, affecting the quarterback in different ways and not enabling them to necessarily know what you're going to be in every play. And again, is that in no way a knock, because I didn't even know what we did. I know what it was categorized as, but that gets overblown.''
On how he intends to be a more "aggressive," play caller as the head coach and build the offense more around Winston:
"Yeah, I think you will definitely see us build more around our quarterback,'' Koetter said. "We will evolve into, instead of trying to protect Jameis, and I don't mean pass protect, but protect him from getting into bad situations. One thing I learned about Jameis this year is he's a playmaker. And as long as he (understands) every play doesn't have to be a big play, you can call a more aggressive game. But he has to manage it that way. And he will. So yeah, I would say we would be more aggressive. I don't think we'll back off our running game in any way, but we will be more aggressive in our passing game. As long as Jameis is able to do the things, not turn the ball over and keep us moving down the field.
On what happened to cause the four-game losing streak to end the season.
"I think it was a combination of we lost Vincent (Jackson) on offense and Kwon (Alexander) on defense,'' Koetter said. "And then we quit taking the ball away and went back to turning it over. So it still comes down to not turning the ball over and explosives and we lost an explosive player on offense and an explosive player on defense. And maybe it was just coincidence but we also started turning the ball over. We hadn't been fumbling the ball, but now we started fumbling it.''
On whether Logan Mankins plans to play in 2016 or retire:
"I don't know that yet,'' Koetter said. "I've talked to Logan and he's still working through it. A guy like Logan, he knows the timeline. We haven't put a deadline on it or anything. We would love to have Logan back. He's the ultimate pro, but he's making a decision for him and his family and I know he'll give us enough time for us to do what we have to do.''
On whether the Bucs' focus in the draft will be on defense?
"You would think so,'' Koetter said. "What was it 13 out of 14 have been offensive players the last two, but I think there's eight guys in there that look like they're going to be solid NFL starters. So Jason and his guys have done an awesome job and they also have not been afraid to move on from some guys that maybe didn't look like they were going to be that. So I think that's really good. We need to just have another one of those drafts. Look at Carolina. They have hit on their draft picks and they've allowed those guys to grow up together. We're off to a good start. Now we have to add to it.''