Dirk Koetter: A Career In Two Plays

Two fourth quarter plays explain why the Bucs’ coach is on the hot seat

Down just a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers were starting to click. Ryan Fitzpatrick found a rhythm with his receivers, and Tampa Bay was mounting a comeback after being down 27-6. With 7:51 remaining in the game, the Bucs faced third and two on the Atlanta 19.

A play was called in. Fitzpatrick lined the Buccaneers up in a shotgun formation with a running back to his right and three receivers bunched up on one side. After getting a good look at the defense, somebody called a timeout because they did not like what they saw. It’s unclear what play had been called.

After the timeout, Fitzpatrick lined the Buccaneers up in a shotgun formation with a running back to his right and three receivers bunched up on one side. That’s the same formation they had been in before the timeout. The eventual play was a quick pass to Adam Humphries that went for exactly a yard. Tampa Bay then went for it on fourth down, failed, and Atlanta put the game away after that.

We can go ahead and label this “Exhibit A” in the case for Dirk Koetter being on the hot seat. It was a sequence emblematic of Koetter’s tenure as Offensive Coordinator and later Head Coach. It had the whole Koetter aesthetic, from a formation that immediately told the opposing defense that there was no way he was going to call a run, to a timeout during which it is entirely plausible the Buccaneers changed nothing at all, to a one yard pass when the Bucs needed two yards, and finished off with a fourth and one incompletion.

On that fourth down, there was no chance Tampa Bay would call a run. They would not load up the line, and Dirk Koetter’s mother did not raise a coach who calls QB Sneaks. Set aside that in most cases, a team wants to at least make the opponent think that they might run or call a sneak. Everyone who watched Koetter’s Bucs over the years knew what was coming, and what was coming was a pass play.

To sum up the problems with Koetter in 2017, we need look no further than those two plays. Let’s start with a multitude of questions about that third down play.

Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones (45) tackles Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate (84) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in Atlanta. Photo: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara.

Question one: How likely is it that the Buccaneers actually changed the play during that timeout?

Again: Coming into the timeout and coming out of it, Tampa Bay lined up the same way. In terms of evidence, this is all we have to go on. Of course anyone who has ever seen a playbook, or even played Madden will tell you that formations can run many different plays, but it’s worth noting that Koetter likes to change up the set quite a bit throughout the game. He’s no Chip Kelly, where most plays are run out of the same setup.

It seems very likely that Koetter chose not to change the call during the timeout. This brings up an obvious follow-up.

Question two: So why did the Buccaneers call timeout in the first place?

Whether Koetter changed the call or (more likely) not, the play that ensued was almost comically ineffective. It was third and two, so it’s not exactly easy to run a one yard passing route. This was not the result of Fitzpatrick looking off better options, he threw the ball almost right away. Humphries was the primary target on the play.

The lack of a timeout didn’t end up mattering, although second half timeouts are inherently valuable. Atlanta proceeded to score a touchdown on the ensuing drive that ended all hope of a comeback and took 5:12 off the clock. Still, why call timeout just to run a dangerous sort of play that did not have an impact on the game? It boggles the mind to try and imagine what happened during that timeout. Maybe one of the coaches used their tablet to book dinner reservations, or maybe somebody wanted an update on the bizarre Greg Schiano situation at Tennessee.

Question three: Did the Buccaneers already plan to go for it on fourth down, and called this play knowing that they would go for it regardless?

Fitzpatrick seemed to believe this, as he never came off the field and nobody on the Buccaneers seemed to expect Patrick Murray to come off the sideline for a field goal.

This likely answers question two. Koetter called timeout to design a fourth and one play, not to change the objectively baffling call on third and two that could have been any number of better ideas. That theory suggests that Koetter expected the third down play to be unsuccessful.

I’m sure planning for a fourth down filled the Buccaneers offense with confidence about the team moving the chains.

Question four: Was there not a single running play that Tampa Bay could have run in a situation where they needed only two yards?

Ryan Fitzpatrick has proven a more than capable backup quarterback. Statistically, though, Fitzpatrick is 30th in the NFL in completion percentage, 24th in yards per attempt, and 22nd in passer rating.

While the Buccaneers’ offensive line has made the run game something the Bucs do mostly for show, the team continues to suit four different running backs for every single game they play. Not one of them saw the ball in a short yardage situation the team had to have.

This is a lack of confidence in both the offensive line and the people behind it. Koetter looked at his team, which has nine people in what you would call “skill positions,” and he decided the team’s fate should be in the hands of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Adam Humphries.

This plan did not utilize Fitzpatrick’s renowned brain, which earned him that Harvard education even though it doesn’t seem to stop him from running in a way that makes fans think he’s actively trying to get killed on the field. The plan did not include Mike Evans or Desean Jackson, both objectively good wide receivers. It did not include Cameron Brate or O.J. Howard, because the Buccaneers tend to forget they exist for prolonged stretches of football. It did not include Doug Martin, Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims, or Peyton Barber.

This is shocking considering how much was on the line. If Tampa Bay had been able to score on that drive, they would have tied the game against a good team. Pulling off a comeback would have calmed down the calls for Koetter’s job, and potentially kept Tampa Bay on the periphery of relevance.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) throws a pass against the New York Jets during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Fitzpatrick is playing in place of injured Jameis Winston. Photo: AP Photo/Jason Behnken.

Now that we’ve broken down third and two, let’s ask some questions about the ensuing fourth and one call.

Question one: Why not sneak the ball?

Every player in the NFL is over a yard tall. At 6’2”, Fitzpatrick is just over two yards tall. In other words, had he simply fallen forward the Buccaneers would have picked up the first down.

It would have required no running at all. There would be few moving parts. All the Bucs would have needed is for the center to make a single block, and Fitzpatrick to basically lay down with the ball at chest height.

As we know, Dirk Koetter does not deal in quarterback sneaks. So instead, the call was for another short pass, this time intended for Cameron Brate. The pass was incomplete, and the comeback was dead at that very second.

Question two: Would any other coach in the NFL right now call two straight pass plays with all but zero threat of running the football in this situation?

Again: The Buccaneers planned to go for it on fourth down coming out of that timeout. It was not a spur of the moment decision. When teams do this, most of the time at least one of the two plays is a run.

While Tampa Bay’s running game has been atrocious, on Sunday the Bucs averaged 4.1 yards per carry. Over the entire season, they average 3.5 yards per rushing attempt. That number is very low, but it also suggests that more often than not, a run on either third or fourth down would have moved the chains and kept things going.

Question three: If you’re going to pass, why not actually consider trying to surprise Atlanta?

Part of why teams might pass on a fourth and one situation is to keep the defense guessing. A defense will gear up to stop a short run or short pass, knowing that there is no margin for error, but going for the end zone in that situation might leave someone behind the entire unit.

I might even suggest that plays like this are exactly what Desean Jackson has made a lucrative career out of, and essentially the reason he was brought to Tampa in the first place. If he streaks for the end zone on that play, there’s a fair chance it catches a defender off guard and he gets some separation.

Instead, Tampa Bay called a play that went right into the teeth of an Atlanta defense that saw it coming from the jump.

Those of us who have played video games remember Tecmo Bowl, an old game where there was no defensive playbook. Instead, players had to guess the offensive play their opponent was going to run. Guess correctly, and the defense overwhelms the offense to force a sack or a turnover. Dirk Koetter would probably be an awful Tecmo Bowl player.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter gestures to his team, during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Photo: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky.

There were some other problems with the Buccaneers’ coaching staff on Sunday. Most notably, both Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith have a history with Julio Jones. Smith drafted Jones with Atlanta back in 2011, and Koetter designed plays for him as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator. Those two people, the two non-Atlanta coaches with the most familiarity with Julio Jones, left the Falcons’ star wide receiver in single coverage all day no matter how many times he torched that coverage. There was no planning, there was no adjustment. Tampa Bay treated Jones like he was any other receiver, and Jones treated Tampa Bay like he’s extremely glad to be on Dan Quinn’s team and not Mike Smith’s.

Still, in just two plays, Dirk Koetter laid out in detail what he has done with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offense. He has taken five pass targets and four running backs, and put them in a predictable offense that has few answers for short yardage plays, wastes timeouts, puts the ball in the hands of odd players at important times, and frustrates just about everybody.

This is not my case for Dirk Koetter’s Tampa Bay tenure coming to an end, it’s Dirk Koetter’s case for his time in Tampa winding down. Sometimes a team’s players will “fire a coach” by quitting on them until that coach is out of a job, something the Bucs did to Greg Schiano in 2013 with plenty of cause. That has not happened. If you stuck around for the second half on Sunday you know that, for all the complaints, the team has not quit on Dirk Koetter or Mike Smith. The Bucs played hard in that second half.

What could have been a comeback to stave off the angry mob turned out to be a summary of the case against Koetter. What could have been a sign of Koetter rallying his troops to a strong finish was instead a borderline surrender.

After the 2015 season, Dirk Koetter was signed to a five year contract. Now, it seems likely that his time as Buccaneers’ head coach has been whittled down to just five more weeks.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.