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Four scenarios for Dirk Koetter, Jason Licht and the Bucs' future

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht chat before an NFL football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht chat before an NFL football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Published Dec. 23, 2017

TAMPA — There are two weeks remaining in the regular season, but for NFL coaches like the Bucs' Dirk Koetter, it's already fourth-and-long.

Four wins, to be exact, and a long way from meeting the expectations that Tampa Bay fans and team owners had in August.

Nobody really knows what the Glazer family which owns the Bucs is thinking. They have a lot of options. When it comes to Koetter and general manager Jason Licht's future, there are four options to be exact.

Here's a look at those options, and what might influence the Glazers' decision:

KEEP BOTH KOETTER AND LICHT

Koetter has three years remaining on his contract. That won't determine the outcome, but it may be in his favor.

There are also some similarities with Ron Rivera's situation in Carolina. Rivera went 6-10 and 7-9 with a No. 1 overall pick at quarterback. But owner Jerry Richardson listened to his pitch.

"The one thing I felt good about is that we had established our quarterback,'' Rivera said. "I liked our offensive line, I thought it was in position now that going forward we could protect the quarterback. Probably the biggest question we still had was do we have enough play-makers around our quarterback.

"And then on the defensive side, it would be the third year of our scheme. We thought we could play fast with these guys and I think that's probably the biggest thing… When we sit down with the year-end review, I think the thing that caught his attention was my plan.''

The Panthers won the next three NFC South titles.

Retaining Koetter and Licht could create continuity the club has lacked. It reduces the turnover on the roster. The Glazers would be acknowledging that while not up to standard, things were beyond their control.

The unusually long list of Bucs injuries keeps growing and has included many key players — Jameis Winston, Noah Spence, Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, Brent Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves and three starting offensive linemen.

The Glazers would be putting a lot of faith in Licht and acknowledging his ability to acquire talent, especially after the success of the Bucs' 2017 draft class.

However, all of this could be a tough sell and could hurt at the ticket office. Finish 4-12, keep the coach and GM and is anyone accountable?

The cost for Koetter could be making him fire defensive coordinator Mike Smith or defensive line coach Jay Hayes, both two longtime Koetter friends.

FIRE KOETTER AND KEEP LICHT

There's some sound reasoning for this scenario. It would indicate that coaching was the primary issue while confirming this team underachieved based on its talent. It also may lend more credence to reports that the relationship between Winston and Koetter was fractured.

If the Glazers went this route, it means they don't believe that — even with an improved pass rush, more depth at corner and a better offensive line and running game — Koetter would be the coach to lead them to the Super Bowl.

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As much as anything, Bucs owners know they have to find someone who can take Winston to the next level. It would be a statement that injuries aside, Winston has regressed or hit a plateau with Koetter. If Winston can play the way he did Monday (299 yards passing, three touchdowns) why have the Bucs averaged just a little more than 20 points per game?

They surrounded Winston with weapons. They spent $30.5 million on a three-year contact for DeSean Jackson, and Winston still could not throw the deep ball accurately. They added O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin. They paid to retain Doug Martin and rode out his three-game suspension.

The Bucs are 2-6 in games decided by one score or less. That reflects poorly on the coaching staff, especially Mike Smith. Under this scenario, Licht would either be empowered to hire his second head coach or the Glazers have a replacement — maybe Jon Gruden, for example — who thinks Licht does a good job.

CLEAN HOUSE

This says Koetter and Licht are equally to blame.

The record is indefensible. But it would say that Licht's mistakes — drafting only two defensive linemen in four years, the disaster of Roberto Aguayo, a poor free-agent class — had as much to do with the failure as coaching.

Licht was essentially hired by Lovie Smith. When Smith was fired, he recommended promoting Koetter to head coach from offensive coordinator. It was a gamble. Koetter wasn't very successful in his last head coaching stint at Arizona State. Some guys are just better as play-callers then leading the entire team.

Not many general managers get the opportunity to hire a second head coach. Koetter and Licht appeared to be united in all the major decisions.

The Glazers may believe anything less than a house-cleaning could be a hard sell to ticket holders. It also may indicate the Bucs have a plan to hire a big-name head coach who will want to hand-pick the general manager and perhaps retain the final say over the roster. Or the Glazers may be thinking the way to go is to hire a new general manager first and let that executive conduct the coaching search.

FIRE LICHT AND KEEP KOETTER

The most unlikely of scenarios is to determine that Licht is most responsible for the failures.

Four years, two head coaches, a No. 1 overall pick at quarterback and no playoff appearances. That could doom a lot of front office executives.

It would be unfair to pin the Aguayo mess on Licht, since owners put their hand on the scale. But he has it on his resume. To retain Koetter without Licht means the Glazers determined the roster holes were too big to overcome by coaching. This team is last in the NFL with 18 sacks. You can't close out games in the NFL without a pass rush.

The 2016 draft is not looking too stellar with Hargreaves having one interception in two years and losing his starting job at cornerback; Spence has a chronically injured shoulder and Aguayo never panned out.

It's unlikely the Bucs would give Koetter control of the 53-man roster. Similar to Lions GM Bob Quinn, who inherited Jim Caldwell as head coach, the Glazers could hire a new GM and let him spend a year evaluating Koetter as head coach.

Contact Rick Stroud at stroudbucs@aol.com. Follow @NFLStroud