Bucs coaching search is all about saving Jameis Winston

The former first overall pick needs a new voice, and maybe, a new offense.
Jameis Winston (3) talks to the media after the Buccaneers' 34-32 loss to Atlanta Sunday.  Hours later, Tampa Bay announced it fired head coach Dirk Koetter.  MONICA HERNDON | Times
Jameis Winston (3) talks to the media after the Buccaneers' 34-32 loss to Atlanta Sunday. Hours later, Tampa Bay announced it fired head coach Dirk Koetter. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published December 30 2018
Updated December 30 2018

TAMPA — A record-breaking offense couldn't save Dirk Koetter.

Now it's all about rescuing the career of quarterback Jameis Winston.

The Bucs made their choice Sunday.

They couldn't bring Koetter back for 2019. Not if they wanted to give Winston a fifth season to see if they could salvage their considerable investment of a No. 1 overall pick in their franchise QB.

Winston needs a new voice, and maybe, a new offense.

Not that anything is wrong with the one Koetter built. The Bucs set franchise records this season for points (396), total yards (6,648), passing yards (5,125) and touchdown passes (36).

But it also put a ton of pressure on passing game, leading to a team-record 26 interceptions between Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The defense also wasn't good enough to overcome so many turnovers and that was the case again in Sunday's 34-32 loss to the Falcons on Matt Bryant's 36-yard field goal with no time remaining.

"Coach Koetter had taught me so much, just in terms of focusing and being the best you,'' Winston said. "Understanding that you can't control what you can't control and obviously what he has brought to this offense has been phenomenal. Now you talk about stats. Probably the best years we've had as an organization (have been) with him bringing in this offense.''

The Bucs wanted continuity for Winston when they fired Lovie Smith after two seasons. So they promoted Koetter, who was the Bucs' offensive coordinator at the time, to head coach.

That search, also conducted by general manager Jason Licht, took only a week.

You have to wonder how quickly this one will be wrapped up.

Look, the Bucs have known for some time that Koetter wasn't coming back in 2019. His assistant coaches knew it. Everybody knew it.

It took only three hours after Sunday's game to fire him.

Koetter believes the Bucs are close. But after a 9-7 season in 2016, he couldn't seize on the momentum. He said it was 'courageous,' for the Glazer family to bring him back after going 5-11 last year. But nobody is brave enough to do that twice.

It may seem somewhat surprising the Bucs are sticking with Licht, whose 27-53 record includes a 2-14 mark when Smith had control of the roster in 2014.

But the Glazers obviously believe there is enough talent to win here and trust Licht to find the right coach to get more out of it.

Koetter would tell you everything is here in Tampa Bay to produce a winner.

The Bucs have finished in the NFC South basement eight of the past 10 years, but he believes the team is close to winning. Of course, everybody has heard that before.

"The Glazer family has given us what we need and this organization is strong, starting with ownership,'' Koetter said.

Koetter is right.

The Glazers have provided their franchise with everything but patience.

They have money for free agency, an indoor practice facility, a state-of-the-art training facility and a refurbished Raymond James Stadium and now the fifth pick in the 2019 draft.

The roster has a mix of veteran players and ascending rookies. It's not perfect, but it's good enough to compete in this division.

"I told the players, 'Close but no cigar, is just where we are right now,' '' Koetter said. "There is a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL and it starts with effort and competing hard. Those guys are doing that for sure.

"We're not far away. The Bucs are not far away. But at the same time, we've got to get over the hump here at some point.''

When a quarterback taken No. 1 overall or high in the first round doesn't make it, coaches get fired. This will be Winston's third head coach. Same number of coaches that the Titans' Marcus Mariota, who was drafted No. 2 behind Winston, has torn through.

Koetter had his flaws. He should've fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith sooner. He went too long thinking Fitzpatrick was the answer.

But Winston bears some responsibility for this mess, too.

Getting suspended for three games didn't help the Bucs, even if they started 2-1. It created distractions.

No matter what Koetter did on offense, he couldn't stop Winston from turning the ball over. But there aren't a lot of better options for 2019.

Do you overpay for free agents like the Eagles' Nick Foles or the Saints' Teddy Bridgewater? Do you take a chance on drafting a quarterback in the first round when none this year are considered can't miss prospects?

The decision is to let Winston play a fifth year at $20.92 million, unless you can negotiate a better deal.

So who will coach Winston? The Glazers like to make a splash. It wouldn't surprise me if they explore trading with the Ravens for John Harbaugh or calling his brother, Jim, at Michigan.

But the early guess is that Licht may move quickly to hire former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who has known Winston since middle school when Winston would attend his passing camps.

Licht and Arians worked together at Arizona when Licht was the VP of player personnel. The Cardinals control Arians for 2019, but that can be worked out. And there is talk that maybe he could bring Todd Bowles, who was fired by the Jets Sunday, as his defensive coordinator.

Oh, and Arians has worked with a few quarterbacks you've heard of like Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer.

The Bucs need someone to save Winston.

Then maybe Winston can save the Bucs back.

Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud

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