“Your guys are your guys.”
Whose words these are I think I know.
They’re Dirk Koetter’s.
Well, I don’t know that they’re actually his. The Buccaneers coach wasn’t the first person to ever utter them. But he has said them. Many times. And he has said that he has said them many times many times.
• Aug. 12, 2017, on kickers: “As I said many times last year, your guys are your guys. I sank 100 percent of my belief in our guys, and I hope they do the same.”
• Sept. 4, 2017, on safeties: “As I've said many times, your guys are your guys, so whatever guys we have, I think they're the best 53 in the world.”
• Sept. 18, 2017, on the defensive line: “We had this conversation last week — your guys are your guys. Once you’ve got them, you’ve got them.”
• Oct. 16, 2017, on the defensive line, again: “Our two sacks came from the defensive tackles, but your guys are your guys. You’ve just got to keep working.”
• Feb. 28, 2018, on winning close games: “Your guys are your guys every year, so I’m not one to look back and whine about the players that we have. Your players are your players.”
• June 12, 2018, on the offensive line: “Those are our guys. As I say all the time, your guys are your guys, and you better feel great about them because that’s who you’ve got.”
• Oct. 18, 2018, on the defensive line, again: “Your guys are your guys. Whoever you have, whoever you’ve got going, they’re going.”
• And most recently at his Thursday news conference, in reference to the offensive line, again:
“I’ve talked to you guys about this before — your players are your players,” he said. “Whoever your players are, you’re going to coach them, you’re going to game plan them, you’re going to try to do the things that we believe in.”
Your guys are your guys, and your players are your players.
Koetter is no Robert Frost, but his words have layers.
On the surface, they seem straightforward. He’s a coach making the most literal statement possible about his team.
Koetter’s words are deeper, however. There is a resignation to them, an acceptance that this is as good as it will get. There’s a wish in there, too, a longing for something better.
It’s tempting to think of what could be, but Koetter can’t do that. It’s useless. There is no “what could be.” In March maybe, but in December, there is only “what is.”
So when reporters and fans ask Koetter about the performance of his offensive line, he can’t give an honest assessment. He hears the whistles in the distance, reminding him of the games ahead. The task is not to be transparent. The task is to win. And to win, he needs to make the most of what he has. And to make the most of what he has, he needs his players to believe he has confidence in them.
That’s why he’ll defend left tackle Donovan Smith, who is playing about as well today as his did as a rookie in 2015.
“I know Donovan is a guy that gets graded down by the football gurus out there, but when you start looking around at the left tackles in the league and the guys you can get, my challenge would be — who do you want to take his place?” Koetter said recently. “That’s a very small number. It’s extremely small. I think Donovan is always there, he’ll play through injury, very smart, powerful, athletic. I think the only knock that you could get on Donovan Smith is that he could be a little bit more consistent, but you could probably say that about every player on the field.”
It’s true that at this moment there isn’t anyone the Bucs could acquire that would be better than Smith, but that is a way of talking around the problem. I compiled a list of left tackles who have outperformed Smith this season, and it’s not a small number (players are in alphabetical order):
Terron Armstead (Saints), David Bakhtiari (Packers), Kelvin Beachum (Jets), Garett Bolles (Broncos), Duane Brown (Texans), Trent Brown (Patriots) and Anthony Castonzo (Colts).
Dion Dawkins (Bills), Taylor Decker (Lions), Charles Leno (Bears), Taylor Lewan (Titans), Jake Matthews (Falcons), Russell Okung (Chargers) and Tyron Smith (Cowboys).
Nate Solder (Giants), Joe Staley (49ers), Ronnie Stanley (Ravens), Laremy Tunsil (Dolphins), Alejandro Villanueva (Steelers), Andrew Whitworth (Rams) and Trent Williams (Washington).
Each of those players has allowed pressure at a lower rate than Smith.
Koetter is doing what you’d expect, and even want, a coach to do. He’s covering for his players. A coach isn’t going to say a player is bad, especially if he senses that the player would bristle at public criticism. That’s a surefire way to lose a locker room. Instead, a coach is going to say things like “he is always there” and “he could be a little bit more consistent.”
There’s covering for your players, and then there’s gaslighting, territory Koetter approached this week.
“Our offense is also top 10 in seven categories,” he said Thursday. “We’re (complaining) about the O-linemen — they’ve contributed to that top 10 in those seven categories.”
Actually, the Bucs offense is in the top 10 in more than seven categories. Among them: points scored, total yards, yards per play, touchdowns, completions, passing yards, passing first downs, third-down conversion percentage and explosive plays. Some advanced measures, however, have the offense, which has been regressing for weeks, closer to league average.
“We can make those stats and those grades that other people do,” Koetter said. “I can make those grades say whatever I want them to — you guys probably can, too.”
The outlets Koetter is referencing don’t exist because they’re interested in making up stats and grades. They exist because they’re interested in bringing football analysis out of the Dark Ages. Coaches and columnists have gone unchecked for decades, and when faced with information that challenges their beliefs, they do what most people do — they double down and seek to undermine the credibility of it rather than alter their attitudes.
The Bucs can dismiss the grades and suggest that they’re subjective. They’ve done so for years. It’s in their best interests, after all, to insist that they know things that others don’t. The fact is an abundance of data supports the argument that the offensive line is a serious liability. It allows defenders to hit quarterbacks and stuff running backs far too often. The weakest links: the left tackle and the right guard. Though truth always limps after falsehood, in time it becomes impossible to deny: While these are indeed Koetter’s guys, he — or the coach who follows him — needs better ones.
That truth is of little value to Koetter now. He can’t stop and wonder. He has three games left. Promises to keep. And miles to go before he can sleep.
NFL standings: Tampa Bay edition
If the season ended today, the Bucs would have the eighth overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft. If you’re pulling for them to jump into the top five, here are the teams you should root for in Week 15 (chances of landing a top-five pick in parentheses, courtesy of Football Outsiders):
• Cardinals (3-10, 95.9 percent) over Falcons (4-9, 44.8 percent)
• 49ers (3-10, 93.8 percent) over Seahawks
• Raiders (3-10, 84.4 percent) over Bengals
• Jets (4-9, 67.3 percent) over Texans
• Bills (4-9, 38.5 percent) over Lions (5-8, 15.3 percent)
• Ravens over Bucs (5-8, 20.9 percent)
• Jaguars (4-9, 18.6 percent) over Washington
• Giants (5-8, 4.9 percent) over Titans
What to watch for
Pass defense: The Bucs are going from facing one of the softest pass defenses (Saints) to one of the toughest (Ravens). Baltimore’s opponents have gained a first down on less than 30 percent of their passes, the lowest rate in the NFL. Over their past four games, the Ravens have been even stingier, allowing first downs about once every four passes.
Tampa Bay’s opponents have gained a first down on 37.1 percent of their passes, the seventh-highest rate. The Bucs also have allowed 29 touchdown passes, second to only the Raiders’ 31.
“Mug” pressure: Jameis Winston was under pressure on nearly half of his dropbacks against the Saints, and the sledding is about to get even tougher. The Ravens are among the leaders in points allowed per drive, yards allowed per drive, three-and-outs forced per drive and punts forced per drive. Their success starts up front, as they generate pressure on 31.6 percent of opponent dropbacks, the fifth-highest rate, according to ESPN.
“They give you different looks,” Koetter said. “What makes it (difficult) — they walk those linebackers back up into the line of scrimmage. We call it mug — mug linebackers. They mug those linebackers up into the A and B gaps. They make it difficult on your double teams. They make you identify where they’re coming from, and then they’re good at changing it at the last second.” (The “A gap” is the space between the center and guard. The “B gap” is the space between a guard and tackle.)
The Ravens keep the quarterback and his blockers guessing. Sometimes every defender who walks up to the line will rush the quarterback. Other times, one defender will rush and another will drop back into coverage, as was the case in this sack of Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in Week 6:
The pass coverage is no less aggressive than the pass rush. Defenders are not afraid to jam and reroute receivers.
This one has the makings of a blowout. The Bucs aren’t coming off just any loss. They’re coming off a loss in which they let a win slip away, a loss that effectively ended the season. Seems like an incredible psychological barrier to overcome. And don’t they already have enough things to overcome? Real, actual things like, you know, the offensive line? The pick: Ravens 35, Bucs 14.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.