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Bucs coach Koetter's future tied to Winston improving

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter is seen at midfield just after shaking hands with Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak (right) following a 27-7 loss at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter is seen at midfield just after shaking hands with Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak (right) following a 27-7 loss at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016.
Published Oct. 10, 2016

TAMPA

The single biggest reason for the Bucs' hiring of Dirk Koetter as head coach was to continue the growth of quarterback and designated savior Jameis Winston.

But what happens if Winston not only doesn't win games but becomes the chief reason the team is losing?

If 1-3 turns into 2-8 or 4-12, Koetter might not have enough sweat equity and professional bandwidth to avoid becoming a one-and-done coach given the Glazer family's impatience and desire to win.

In fact, you could argue that no head coach's future is as dependent on the success of his quarterback as Koetter's.

Winston's eight interceptions are second most in the NFL, and only the 49ers' Blaine Gabbert and the Jets' Ryan Fitzpatrick have a lower passer rating than his 72.9. He also has lost two fumbles.

There are a lot of factors in Winston's sputtering. The loss of running back Doug Martin might be the biggest. Without the league's second-leading rusher last season, who has missed parts of three games with a hamstring injury, the offense has been one-dimensional. (Although he was averaging only 3.4 yards per carry). As a result, Winston has attempted more than 44 passes per game, most of any quarterback.

"At times, I do try to do too much, and that's a part of the problem," Winston said. "I've just got to do my job and let the players play."

But Koetter is the Bucs' play-caller, and the failure of the offense, regardless of injuries, rests squarely on his shoulders.

Against the Broncos last week, the Bucs had 20 first-down plays that gained 1 or fewer yards. That's an astounding amount of failure, albeit against arguably the best defense in football.

"We talk about efficient plays, efficient plays on first down that'll be 4 yards or more," Koetter said. "When we say, 'Staying ahead of the chains,' we did a horrible job."

After a fantastic season-opening win at Atlanta, which now leads the NFC South at 4-1, the Bucs have lost three in a row heading into tonight's game at Carolina on Monday Night Football. They laid an egg at Arizona, which plays tough man coverage, then couldn't handle the Broncos' combination of coverage and pass rush with cornerback Aqib Talib intercepting two passes in the first half.

If there is another valid criticism of Koetter through the first quarter of the season, it's his poor clock management.

It's surprising since he spent some time thinking about how to manage end-of-half and end-of-game situations while also wearing the hat as the team's play-caller. That's why he appointed assistant receivers coach Andrew Weidinger to be in charge of game management.

But two weeks ago, Koetter ignored his plea to call timeout after Charles Sims failed to get out of bounds at the Rams 15 trailing 37-32 with less than a minute left and two timeouts in his pocket. The Bucs lost at least 16 seconds, which would've equated to two more plays when Winston got tackled at the 5 on second down to end the game.

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Koetter also hasn't handled end-of-the-half situations well. Yes, the Bucs attacked late in the first half at Atlanta and were rewarded for it. But against the Cardinals, trailing 17-0 with 1:30 left in the second quarter, they used only 25 seconds in their final possession of the half, giving Arizona enough time to score a touchdown and effectively end the game.

Then against Denver last Sunday, despite three turnovers in the first half, the Bucs trailed only 14-7 when they got the ball back at their 21 with 1:46 left. Three incomplete passes used only 15 seconds before a punt, and the Broncos had enough time drive for a field goal.

Attacking is a good mentality for a head coach and play-caller to have. But depending on the score, you have to accomplish two things: move the football into scoring position; or, failing that, use enough time so your opponent can't score.

Finally, trailing 27-7 with 7:30 left in the game and the ball at the Denver 46, Koetter elected to punt rather than go for it on fourth and 6.

"That is a ridiculous play-call," Sports Illustrated's Peter King wrote on MMQB. "How do you assume you'll get the ball three times in the last six minutes (max) of the game?"

It's ridiculous to suggest that the buzzards are circling over Koetter. Players and the owner­ship still believe in him. He's a first-year head coach who is going to make mistakes and experience growing pains. The hardest part of the schedule will be behind the Bucs after tonight's game.

But Winston needs to play better. Soon. Koetter is depending on it.

NOTE: Linebacker Cameron Lynch was promoted from the practice squad for special teams help, waiving wide receiver Jeremy Butler to make room on the 53-man roster.