Bucs-Falcons: The changes looming over Tampa Bay’s finale

At 19-28 entering Sunday's finale against Atlanta, Koetter may be coaching his final game for the Bucs. Licht's future could be linked.
Published Dec. 29, 2018|Updated Dec. 30, 2018

TAMPA — This time there was no Friday afternoon phone call from the Bucs' owners. No corresponding message two days before the season finale from general manager Jason Licht to coach Dirk Koetter saying they were both safe for next season.

Not like a year ago.

Regardless of the outcome today against the Falcons, Koetter and Licht will go into New Year's Eve waiting for the next shoe to drop before the ball does in Times Square.

Koetter is under contract for 2019, and the club has an option for 2020. At 19-28 going into the final game of his third season as the head coach, his record isn't good.

After leading the Bucs to a 9-7 season in 2016, his team has gone 5-11 and 5-10 since.

Complicating matters is that most Bucs assistant coaches have contracts that expire at the end of January. If the Bucs keep Koetter, they would also need to offer members of the staff two-year deals. Nearly all would have the option to leave if they thought Koetter was a lame duck heading into 2019.

Several assistant coaches say it's hard to imagine the Glazer family not making a coaching change. If it does, the Bucs would be looking for their fifth head coach since firing Jon Gruden in January 2009.

"If you've ever been in that position where your future is unsettled, it's not the most comfortable feeling," Koetter said. "But also, we picked the profession.''

Then again, there has been speculation that the list of available head coaching candidates is not very attractive heading into the offseason.

The Glazers are very tight-lipped about the operation of their team. But among the teams likely to make changes, they are believed to have been the least active in exploring available candidates.

There is no marquee candidate like Gruden was in years past. The Ravens announced that John Harbaugh would return for 2019. His brother, Jim, a former 49ers head coach, has said he plans to remain at Michigan. When asked by the Tampa Bay Times on Friday if he or his representatives had been contacted by the Bucs, Jim Harbaugh said, "I have no representatives.''

Ex-Packers coach Mike McCarthy has a Super Bowl ring and may be the most accomplished of the available candidates. From the college ranks, Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley is considered the greatest catch. Thursday, he said he wasn't interested in an NFL job.

Another reason for the Bucs to make a coaching change is to determine if another approach or offensive system will salvage the investment they have in quarterback Jameis Winston. The Bucs picked up Winston's fifth-year club option of $20.92 million, which is guaranteed only against injury. All indications are the Glazers would like to give Winston one more year — not disrupted by a three-game suspension, the way his season was this year — to realize his potential.

Koetter was the Bucs' offensive coordinator when Winston was drafted first overall in 2015. Only the Jaguars' Blake Bortles has more turnovers (75) in the past four years than Winston (74). Consequently, Winston's record is 21-32.

Winston expressed effusive support for Koetter on Thursday.

"I've learned a lot from Coach Koetter,'' Winston said. "He's an incredible coach, and he's an incredible man, and he's helped develop me to do some incredible things as a quarterback.

"He's not planning (today's) game thinking this is his last day. I'm not playing the game thinking this is my last snap as a Buc."

As for his future with the Bucs? "I can't control what goes on upstairs,'' Winston said.

The man upstairs who has made the biggest football decisions is Licht, who came aboard as general manager under then-coach Lovie Smith in 2014. Though he didn't have control of the 53-man roster, the Bucs went 2-14 that season. That means Licht has one winning season in five; his overall mark is 27-52. He would need a win today to match the record of Mark Dominik, who was fired as GM in early 2014 after five seasons.

Licht and his staff have built a pretty strong foundation around Winston, including Mike Evans, O.J Howard, Chris Godwin, Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith.

Some of their acquisitions have not completely developed, such as Justin Evans, Vita Vea and Vernon Hargreaves.

Every GM has misses, and Licht's include second-round picks kicker Roberto Aguayo, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and maybe running back Ronald Jones.

Licht has hit on half of his trades and free agents. For every Jason Pierre-Paul, Brent Grimes, Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate, there has been a Chris Baker, Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson.

It's possible the Bucs could fire Koetter and keep Licht, who has one year and a club option left on his contract, though it's rare in the NFL for a GM to get to hire a second head coach.

Whatever happens, there is a general feeling of a missed opportunity under Koetter. His winning percentage is third behind Tony Dungy's and Gruden's among Bucs coaches.

With lesser talent and Winston in only his second year, Koetter's 2016 team overcame a 1-3 start to win five in a row. Then it lost at Dallas and at New Orleans before beating Carolina to finish 9-7. Rather than build on that, the Bucs regressed in 2017.

They enter today's game with a three-game losing streak and trying to avoid losing for the eighth time in the final 10 games.

Offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who took over the play-calling duties from Koetter this season and has the league's third-overall offense, says it's frustrating to live with those results.

"I'm as frustrated as (Koetter) is," Monken said, "because when you look in the mirror and you come to work every day and you believe you have a good staff and you believe you have talent … this game can humble you in the NFL because I wouldn't have guessed this is where we're at. But we've earned this. The record is what it is. But (Koetter is) as fine a coach I've ever been around.''

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLStroud.