Three big decisions loom for the Bucs

There will be some changes at One Buc Place for the New Year with big decisions looming on Dirk Koetter, Jameis Winston and Jason Licht.
The last time Dirk Koetter went to Dallas, his team was 8-5 and in the NFC playoff hunt. He returns Sunday as a head coach whose fate is uncertain at best. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
The last time Dirk Koetter went to Dallas, his team was 8-5 and in the NFC playoff hunt. He returns Sunday as a head coach whose fate is uncertain at best. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published December 22 2018
Updated December 22 2018

TAMPA —Decision time will come on New Year's Eve, which coincides with black Monday in the NFL this year. Some important people won't make it until midnight.

The Bucs have three huge judgments to make on head coach Dirk Koetter, general manager Jason Licht and quarterback Jameis Winston.

It's impossible to think one won't have any bearing on the other because so much of their success is dependent on each other.

Let's start with Koetter, since he will be held accountable for a 5-9 season entering Sunday's game at Dallas.

Koetter is 19-27 with only winning season in three, so the Bucs would certainly be well within reason to consider moving in another direction.

He's already gotten more time than Greg Schiano or Lovie Smith. When he was retained last season after a 5-11 mark, he said the Glazer family which owns the team was "courageous" to bring him and staff back.

Even if the Bucs win one of their remaining two games at Dallas and home against Atlanta, Koetter could only show a one-game improvement over 2017. Will that be enough?

There have been NFL 20 coaches finish their third season without a playoff appearance in the past 20 years and half of them were fired. In fact, it's a good idea to part ways because seven of the 10 who were retained didn't make it past a fourth year.

The arguments for keeping Koetter?

He's installed, and at times called plays for, the best offense in franchise history. For much of the season, the Bucs had the No. 1 overall offense in the NFL. Poor showings against good defenses in back-to-back weeks versus New Orleans and Baltimore have dropped the Bucs to No. 3 overall, averaging 416.6 yards per game.

The Bucs' 318.9 passing yards per game still ranks tops in the NFL, although much of that cushion was built in the first three games. The Bucs are on pace to set franchise records for points and total offense.

Koetter arrived in Tampa as the offensive coordinator under Lovie Smith, so he's been the coach Winston has worked the most closely with for all four seasons. Continuity can have its reward.

Take a look at the coach on the Cowboys sideline Sunday. Jason Garrett went 8-8 in each of his first three seasons before breaking through with a 12-4 record in his fourth year.

"I do think there's value in being able to put your program in place and having some patience in terms of the kind of team you want to have, how you build that with the personnel you bring in, the guys you draft and bring to your team through free agency," Garrett said. "I think that's an important part of the process. I'm surely an advocate for that."

Plus, Koetter should be given a little slack for the disruption Winston's three-game suspension caused the Bucs. Sure, Tampa Bay went 2-1 with Ryan Fitzpatrick playing lights out. But the layoff may have hurt Winston, who was benched after only three starts when he returned.

You also have to consider it's not a star-studded collection of possible replacements. Fired Packers coach Mike McCarthy may lead the list which could eventually include wobbly coaches like Carolina's Ron Rivera or Washington's Jay Gruden.

The reasons for parting ways with Koetter are pretty obvious. Winston hasn't developed as quickly as anyone would've liked. Maybe a new system or voice in his ear would be helpful. It didn't hurt the Rams' Jared Goff when Sean McVay took over from Jeff Fisher.

Then there was Koetter dragging his feet to fire defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who wasn't let go until one game after the bye week following a 34-29 loss at Atlanta.

Can you trust Koetter to hire another defensive coordinator or is Mark Duffner the answer?

Also, how do you sell it? The Bucs attendance hasn't been on the upswing.

The Glazers don't have slow trigger fingers. If Koetter is let go, they will be hiring their sixth head coach in 12 seasons.

Jamies Winston

In a way, the Bucs have risked $20.9 million per play to see what they have in Winston. That's the amount of the club option they picked up for 2019, which is guaranteed only against injury. A torn ACL or a rotator cuff injury that keeps him from passing a physical in March means you bought Winston anyway.

Winston turns 25 in January.  The Bucs have four years invested in a No. 1 overall pick. That's a lot of sweat equity.

His 83 touchdowns are a club record. He will set the Bucs' passing yardage mark if he is back early in 2019 since he needs only 874 yards.

Watching Fitzpatrick put up video game numbers put pressure on Winston to match them. After his benching, Winston proved he can cut down on turnovers. He has only two interceptions in four starts since returning from his benching, one on a Hail Mary.

Off the field, Winston's fiancée had a boy in July. It's been more than three years since the Uber incident in Arizona.

The Glazers seem to like Winston. Besides, will they be better off going the free agent route with the Ravens' Joe Flacco or the Saints' Teddy Bridgewater?

In the draft, there are no consensus can't-miss quarterbacks, though  three may go in the first round.

On the other hand, Winston has never really proven he can win consistently at the NFL level. His team has gotten better around him, but he's 21-31 as a starter and 6-14 over the past two seasons with no playoff appearances. He's also lost his last 11 starts on the road.

When the Bucs forced Josh Freeman on Greg Schiano, it was doomed from the start. Should a new head coach get a chance to make the decision on Winston?

Jason Licht

Licht's record isn't very good at 27-51, the fourth-worst in the NFL in the past five years. But you have to remember the Bucs went 2-14 in the first year under Lovie Smith, who had control of the 53-man roster limit.

By comparison, former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik was 28-52 and fired in five seasons after 2013.

For as much as Licht has said he loves Winston, Licht didn't make the final call on that No. 1 pick. That said, he did the background research and it came on his watch. It's rare for general managers to outlast a shaky No. 1 overall pick, especially at quarterback.

Licht also supported the hiring of Koetter to replace Smith. Not many GMs get a chance to hire two head coaches, although it hasn't hurt the Bears' Ryan Pace. He hired John Fox and Matt Nagy. Chicago won the NFC North and has the best defense in the league.

Licht and his scouting staff have made some good discoveries and decent draft picks. He gets credit for Mike Evans and Kwon Alexander, who each have made at least one Pro Bowl. Left tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet were also part of his second draft class.

Everybody will point to misses in the draft such as Vernon Hargreaves, Ronald Jones (so far) and especially Roberto Aguayo. But the owners put their hand on the scale for the Florida State kicker, so you have to wonder how much criticism Licht deserves.

There have been misses in free agency, especially when the team was bad. Some of those players, like quarterback Josh McCown, were Lovie Smith's call. At least he quickly cut his losses with bad signings like defensive end Michael Johnson, tackle Anthony Collins and defensive tackle Chris Baker.

The trade with the Giants for Jason Pierre-Paul and claiming Browns defensive end Carl Nassib off waivers was genius.  Not all his 2018 moves have worked out, like defensive linemen Vinny Curry and Mitch Unrein.

There are worst GMs, to be sure. And Licht has finally built a good scouting staff, led by director of player personnel John Spytek.

Remember this: if the Glazers fire Licht, who helps them conduct the head coaching search? Are they confident they can select the right GM on their own this time? Would they trust a new GM to hire the next head coach?

This is certain: 2019 will come in with a bang for the Bucs.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud

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