TAMPA — Dirk Koetter believed for some time that he wouldn't be the head coach of the Bucs next season.
Long before the Bucs lost their season finale to the Falcons 34-32 on Matt Bryant's field goal as time expired Sunday, Koetter had known the score.
He even seemed at peace with what he believed was coming.
"There's no such thing as 'deserve' in the NFL,'' Koetter said after the game. "Numbers are nice, but this is a winning league. … I've been fired before, and I've been hired before, and I know this: If you can look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and know you did everything you could, I got no problem holding my head up.
"Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, and that's just the way this business works.''
What happened about three hours later was that the Bucs announced that they had fired Koetter, who followed a 9-7 season in 2016 with back-to-back 5-11 records and consecutive last-place finishes in the NFC South.
General manager Jason Licht, whose record in five seasons is 27-53, will conduct the search for a new head coach, team co-chairman Joel Glazer said in a statement.
"We sincerely appreciate the hard work and commitment shown by Dirk over the past several years,'' Glazer said. "Working with Dirk has been a pleasure, and we wish him and his family all the best in the future."
The Bucs are looking to hire their fifth head coach since firing Jon Gruden after the 2008 season.
Koetter, who turns 60 in February, has one year remaining on his contract. Nearly all the Bucs assistants have contracts that expire in February.
Koetter's biggest accomplishment was that he built a historically productive offense in Tampa Bay. The Bucs finished 2018 by setting club records for most points (396), total yards (6,648), passing yards (5,125) and touchdown passes (36) in a season.
But the 26 interceptions combined by quarterbacks Jameis Winston (14) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (12) were the most in a single Bucs season as well.
The Bucs plan to enter 2019 with Winston as their quarterback. They picked up his fifth-year contract option of $20.92 million, but the salary is guaranteed only against injury.
Sunday, Winston passed for 345 yards and four touchdowns, two each to receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
He had just one interception, on a tipped pass intended for Evans, but that led to Tevin Coleman's 23-yard touchdown run that gave the Falcons a 24-20 lead in the third quarter.
"All I can say is I have a ton of respect for coach Koetter, what he has done for me and this team since he has been here, especially what he can control,'' said Winston, whose first offensive coordinator was Koetter in 2015. "Offensively, (the team) has been phenomenal, so I have a lot of respect for him.''
The Bucs' — and Koetter's — undoing this season was turnovers. Tampa Bay finished plus-18 in giveaway-takeaway margin.
For all the improvement Winston made under Koetter, he hasn't protected the ball well. Only Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has more turnovers (76) in the past four years than Winston (75). Consequently, Winston's record is 21-33.
Winston was suspended for the first three games of the regular season this year for violating the NFL's player-conduct policy after a league investigation concluded that he groped a female Uber driver in Arizona in March 2016. The Bucs started 2-0 behind Fitzpatrick but lost 11 of their last 14 games, including four straight to end the season, the longest active losing streak in the NFL.
Koetter also was slow to oust defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who was finally fired five games into the season with the Bucs allowing a league-worst average 34.6 points per game.
Koetter was asked after Sunday's game, before his firing, what the biggest reason was for the Bucs' 5-11 record.
"Not even close. Turnovers,'' he said. "We dug ourselves a hole way too many times with the turnover margin. And it started off after the first couple games of (the) offense turning it over."
As for who could replace Koetter, no marquee candidate is available, like Gruden was the past few years before he took the Raiders' job in January. The Baltimore Ravens announced that head coach John Harbaugh would return for 2019, but ESPN reported that at least one team will attempt to trade for him. His brother, Jim, a former 49ers coach, has said he plans to remain at the University of Michigan, where he has been the coach the past four seasons.
Ex-Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, fired after a Week 13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, has a Super Bowl championship and may be the most accomplished available candidate. From the college ranks, Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley is considered the greatest catch. Thursday, he said he wasn't interested in an NFL job.
Licht worked with former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians as vice president of player personnel in Arizona. Arians has also known Winston since the quarterback was in middle school, but Arians' rights are controlled by the Cardinals until 2019.
"Bucs fans want to win,'' Koetter said before his firing. "That's not unique to the 31 other cities. … So the stuff that Bucs fans (complain) about? … I get it, because they want to win. Sometimes they think they want to win more than we do. And that's not true. The guys in the trenches, they really want to win.
"Tampa is a sports town, and when the Bucs get over that hump? (Raymond James Stadium) will be rocking again.''