It was a "brutal year." That's how general manager Jason Licht views the Bucs 2017 season.
Expectations, many of them he said he "cringed at," nonetheless went unfulfilled due to injuries, particularly the right shoulder sprain suffered by quarterback Jameis Winston.
On a day when the Tennessee Titans and coach Mike Mularkey agreed to mutually part ways after losing to the New England Patriots 35-14 in the NFC divisional playoff game, Licht defended the Bucs decision to keep coach Dirk Koetter and his entire staff following a 5-11 season.
In a comprehensive interview with the Times Monday, his first since 2017 ended, Licht was very candid about the Bucs failures and their plans to fix the many problems areas on the team.
Let's start with Licht's assessment of 2017 and then address why the team not only returned Koetter but picked up the one-year club option for every Bucs assistant coach.
Licht said that a season-ending shoulder injury to Noah Spence affected the NFL's worst pass rush and gave insight into the reason for sticking with defensive coordinator Mike Smith after the Bucs finished last in total defense.
He also placed a lot of the Bucs inability to run the football on a poor performance by Doug Martin, who has most likely played his last game for Tampa Bay.
On Winston, who missed three weeks with a shoulder injury and played three other games hurt, Licht said he 'was not the same guy,' until he returned for the final five games of the regular season following nearly a month off.
"Number one I would say that – and I'm not using any of these as excuses – the injury to the quarterback early in the year, he gets knocked out at Arizona,'' Licht said. "We trust our doctors, we trust the multiple opinions. We sent him out to see the best of the best, including our people, and we wouldn't have put him out there if we thought that he could re-injure it. We didn't think he could do worse damage to it. But clearly, not the same guy until late in the year when we did rest him and he came back and played. I think anytime when you have your quarterback go down, it's just not going to be the same.''
Licht pinpointed two obvious areas of disappointment – the lack of a consistent rushing attack and the inability to rush the passer.
The Bucs finished 27th in the NFL by averaging only 90.6 yards rushing per game. For the fourth time in five years, Martin failed to rush for even 500 yards. He was suspended the first three games of the season and made inactive for another game for violating team rules.
"I think the lack of, or having a hard time getting the run game going was…you know, Doug just didn't have…he just wasn't ever the same,'' Licht said. "And it wasn't until late that Peyton (Barber) kind of arrived and things started going a little bit better with him, starting with the Green Bay game and on and on.''
The Bucs also were last in the NFL in sacks with 22, a big reason why the team was 3-7 in one-score games. Licht also said a drop off in performance by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who lost his starting job and did not have an interception before a hamstring injury ended his season, was also a big factor.
"The lack of pass rush had major effect on our defense as did the injuries,'' Licht said. "I thought last year, coming off last year, I thought Vernon Hargreaves played solid for a rookie. We were happy with him. We were happy with him all off-season and then he didn't have the year any of us really were really hoping, including himself, until the last couple games that he played, he came back and started showing signs of life again and we were happy with and then the injury knocks him out. We tried to mix and match and in the secondary. We missed Grimes for a couple games. That combined with the lack of rush, we were hoping Noah would have a breakout year and he gets hurt.
"We were hoping (Jacquies) Smith would come back, but then he ends up not being able to come back full speed. So there's a lot of reasons behind it, but also that's an area where it's just not easy to go to the defensive line tree and pick guys. You know, it's a little difficult. It's challenging.''
Spence and defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu are the only defensive linemen taken by the Bucs in the draft in four years under Licht, who defended his record in that area.
"From the results, you could say that but it's not like…we do a lot of work on the defensive linemen every year,'' Licht said. "There's been a lot of defensive linemen that I liked and hoped to get, it just didn't work out. Sometimes, there's been guys, without naming names, it's worked out, the pick that you've made because the player that went before you or you wanted to take didn't work out and you're happy you got the player you took instead. So it can go both ways. You can't play the hindsight game too much.''
The Bucs have picked up the club options on all their assistant coaches for 2018, although Licht indicated there could still be some 'tweaks.'
Overall, he said keeping the continuity of the coaching staff was the best way to go. The biggest needs for 2018 are on defense, Licht said.
"We've been pretty heavy offense,'' Licht said. "It's the way things fell. We wanted to surround our quarterback with good players. Now it's a little bit more of a challenging phase right now to concentrate on trying to build that defense up.
"The last eight games – this is typically what you get from teams that didn't make the playoffs – we were close in this many games and we should've won these games and blah, blah, blah. But as bad as everybody wants to say the defense was, we did have moments. At this point last year, we were being lauded for the best off-season move of keeping Mike Smith after a historic turnaround in 2016. And now we had a year where I've been on record saying it – it was brutal. But you know, you don't just forget how to coach. You know, in the past the team has been criticized for making changes too fast. For wiping the slate clean and starting over. In this day and age, it's understandable that people seem to want instant change.
"We feel like it's continuity, after a deep dive here in the off-season of what the issues were, we know what they were we all think we can get better. We know we can get better. Nobody is working harder than these guys in this building right now on both sides. The answers are here in terms of the coaches, the personnel people and we have a lot of good players we feel like in this locker room that can turn this thing around.''
Without going into detail, Licht made it clear some free agents won't return in 2018. The speculation will center on defensive tackle Chris Baker and safety T.J. Ward. Expect to see receiver DeSean Jackson back despite a disappointing season in which he caught only 50 passes for 668 yards and three touchdowns in 14 games.
"He did have a hard time getting the ball,'' Licht said. "He's a play-maker that didn't have one of his better years, that's for sure. But a lot of that, not his fault. You come to a new team, the quarterback is injured, was struggling early. It's one of those things where we'll look at all of that the next couple of months. There probably will be some free agents that won't be re-signed.''
In many ways, Licht said, the lessons learned from 2017 should make the Bucs better next season.
"The whole year, just the expectations were just, not set by us, it was just something I cringed at,'' Licht said. "Of course, you want positive things written about us but when the expectations are that we've got these weapons now and we're going to score 50 points a game, it's just not that easy. I think these guys are going to learn a lot from this season. I know we only finished with five wins but there's just nobody walking around here thinking anything but good things about next year. Everybody is excited about it.''