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Have the Bucs finally found their coach?

 
Head coach Dirk Koetter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers makes his way through the tunnel on his way to the field at the start of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots on October 5, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
Head coach Dirk Koetter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers makes his way through the tunnel on his way to the field at the start of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots on October 5, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
Published Oct. 13, 2017

Before Dirk Koetter ever stood on the sideline as a head coach in the National Football League, an old buddy of his predicted he would have major success.

"One of the smartest dudes I've ever known,'' said former NFL player and commentator Merril Hoge.

Hoge and Koetter grew up together in Idaho. Koetter was just a kid at the time, in his early 20s, when he coached Hoge at Highland High in Pocatello.

Since then, Koetter has lived the renegade life of your typical football coach, making pit stops all over the country: Northern California, Texas, Missouri, Boston, Oregon, back to Idaho, Arizona, Jacksonville, Atlanta and now here in Tampa Bay.

And, like most coaches, he has had his share of successes and failures.

But he has only been a head coach in the NFL for just more than a year and a mere 20 games. His record, so far, is rather modest. Just 11 wins against nine losses.

As we wait to see if the Bucs take that next step from pretender to contender, all eyes are on 58-year-old Koetter. Is he the guy who can lead Tampa Bay over the hump?

Or, to put it in simplest terms: Is he the guy?

Everyone has an opinion on that.

For example, back in the preseason, Fox Sports 1's Skip Bayless said, "As much as I like this team on the verge, I think the coaching staff is going to present a ceiling for this team. That's just my gut feeling: They might limit how far this team can go."

He was talking specifically about Koetter.

Meantime, on a recent NFL broadcast, CBS's Tony Romo had nothing but praise for Koetter.

And fellow coach Bruce Arians of the Cardinals, whom the Bucs play Sunday, said, "Dirk's one of the best. We have a lot of mutual friends, and I have a ton of respect. One of the best play-callers, I think, in the business."

It's way too early in Koetter's head coaching career to use results as a barometer for future success.

So what it comes down to is exactly what Bayless said: a gut feeling.

And my gut tells me that, yes, Koetter is the right guy.

Does he have flaws? Absolutely.

He can be stubborn and thin-skinned, which makes him like practically every other football coach on the planet. He often acts like he's the smartest guy in the room. Then again, when it comes to football IQ, he usually is the smartest guy in the room. And that arrogance also puts him on the same level as every other football coach.

His clock management can be questioned. So, occasionally, can his choice of in-game adjustments.

But when looking at a head coach early in his head-coaching career, here's how we can gauge it:

Does he seem in control? Does he seem overwhelmed? Does the job seem too big for him? Does it feel like the team is moving in the right direction?

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And Koetter checks all the right boxes.

Go back and watch reruns of Hard Knocks, the HBO series that gave us a behind-the-curtain peek at the Bucs. And you'll see a coach who has earned the respect of his players because of his honesty. You'll see a coach who treats his players like men. You'll see a coach who treats his players with respect.

And you'll see a coach who looks like he knows what he is doing.

He doesn't seem overwhelmed. The job doesn't seem too big. He does seem like right guy.

Raheem Morris seemed overwhelmed. The job seemed too big for Greg Schiano. Even Lovie Smith, despite success with the Bears, just didn't feel like the right guy.

All three left with the organization in no better shape than when they arrived.

But the Bucs seem much farther down the road than they were when Koetter took over.

In the five seasons before Koetter took over, the Bucs went 4-12, 7-9, 4-12, 2-14 and 6-10. In this first season, Koetter went 9-7.

Granted, maybe he had better talent and general manager Jason Licht deserves credit, too, for acquiring that talent.

But a coach must have something to do with such an improvement in record, doesn't he?

Most of all, Koetter has changed the culture.

The team usually looks prepared. The team is almost always competitive. And the team plays like it believes it can win each and every week.

The Bucs, under Koetter, still ride the roller coaster a bit. Eventually, our gut feelings about him will go away and we'll base his effectiveness on actual results

For now, I agree with Hoge.

Koetter is one smart dude.

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com. Follow @tomwjones