Bucs Lose As Whispers Grow Louder

A Report About Jameis Winston And Dirk Koetter Stole The Show For The Buccaneers

The Buccaneers’ miserable season continued on Sunday afternoon with an agonizing 24-21 loss at home against the Detroit Lions. By and large, the game was poorly played on both sides with officiating to match.

Tampa Bay turned the ball over five times in the loss. Jameis Winston threw two interceptions and fumbled, O.J. Howard fumbled on a controversial play, and Doug Martin fumbled on a hard-to-explain third down playcall.

Fourteen of Detroit’s points were scored on drives that began with Tampa Bay turnovers, which makes those giveaways the difference in a close football game.

The Bucs fell to 4-9, ensuring a losing season in the process.

Winston and Koetter: At odds?

Jameis Winston takes practice throws before facing the Lions on December 10, 2017. (Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

Before the game, the press box was abuzz following a report from NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport that Jameis Winston and Dirk Koetter were at odds over Koetter’s playcalling. With fans calling for Koetter to be fired after the season already, and amid rumors of Jon Gruden potentially being interested in a hypothetical return to Tampa, Koetter’s seat was already heating up. A vote of no confidence from Winston, if the report is to be believed, would likely be the last straw for a coach who was hired for the specific purpose of developing Jameis Winston into a long term success under center.

For his part, Winston distanced himself from that report on Sunday when asked. “Listen, me and Coach Koetter have a great relationship first and foremost. We have the same goal when we go out there on that football field and that’s to win the football game. It doesn’t matter what anyone else can possibly say, obviously a lot of stuff can come out when we are not doing as expected, but that’s false. Coach Koetter coaches his tail off and he definitely supports me, so whatever anybody else has to say outside of that – that’s water under the bridge.”

Certainly, few would say the Buccaneers’ offense in 2017 is at all innovative. A team that spent the offseason loading up on passing targets often seems to be at a loss for ideas when pressed. Some of this could be due to an offensive line incapable of providing a quarterback with enough time to let a play develop, but other teams with less than stellar lines have managed to surprise defenses.

At times while Winston was out rehabbing an injury to his AC Joint, it seemed as though Ryan Fitzpatrick fared better in this offense than Winston had. At first this looked bad for Winston, suggesting he wasn’t developing the way people had hoped. In hindsight, it might be another bad sign for Dirk Koetter that a journeyman quarterback is better suited to run his offense than a more talented young player.

In short, it could be argued strongly that Dirk Koetter has not made the most of the skill position talent that Jason Licht has made available to him. That had already been suggested by fans and others outside of the organization, but to have whispers of it from within make Koetter’s job status seem even more tenuous.

On the Buccaneers’ opening drive, Koetter’s playcalling immediately came into question. Facing third and 4 on their own 27, the Buccaneers called for a short pass to Charles Sims. Sims was tackled after a yard. One wonders if a call like throwing one yard when four were needed is what Winston was talking about when he voiced displeasure with Koetter.

Early in the second quarter, we saw a combination of Winston’s issues and Dirk Koetter’s issues. The call was for a rollout to Winston’s right. He rolled out, staring down DeSean Jackson the whole way and making it clear to Detroit that he intends to throw to Jackson. This allowed Darius Slay to jump in front of the Bucs’ wide receiver and intercept the pass, giving Detroit the ball back in Tampa Bay territory. They scored an effortless touchdown to take their lead back.

Koetter’s playcalling reared its ugly head again late in the second quarter. With Tampa Bay down a touchdown and driving, they found themselves facing third and 1 on the Detroit 23. The call, despite there being nobody directly across from the center, was for a Doug Martin run. Martin found nothing, tried to run around and make something happen, and eventually fumbled for a turnover and a momentum killer. Just a reminder: Doug Martin is one of the smallest RBs in the league, and Jameis Winston is well above the average size for a quarterback.

Bad game for the refs, too

Lavonte David is the runaway favorite for Buccaneers’ team MVP in 2017. The linebacker has risen to yet another level this season, and showed it by forcing and recovering a fumble from Eric Ebron to keep momentum alive for the Bucs. Shortly thereafter, Jameis Winston found O.J. Howard up the middle for a big gain, which is when football broke.

Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate (15) is stopped by Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Lavonte David (54) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Photo: AP Photo/Jason Behnken.

Howard was punished with a diving hit. The ball came loose and flags hit the turf. Detroit recovered the fumble. The initial call was an incomplete pass and a personal foul against the Lions for a hit on a defenseless receiver. That call came under automatic review, since the play could have involved a turnover. On review, it stood. Then the Lions challenged the call. Upon even further review, the referees overturned the original call. Howard was credited with a catch, the Lions were given a fumble and recovery, and the personal foul was wiped out because the receiver wasn’t defenseless. First down Detroit, and the crowd was a combination of angry and confused.

The frustration continued into the second half. With the Buccaneers starting to drive in the third quarter, Jameis Winston tried to throw under pressure. As people have learned, when Winston throws under pressure bad things happen. This time, it led to another emphatic fumble, recovered by the Lions. To get to that conclusion, we all had to sit through some more prolonged adventures in officiating, but at the end of the day the Bucs were without the football. Detroit scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession, making the score 21-7 and making the coaching staff in Tampa Bay look like a bunch of lame ducks.

Playing for pride

Fans tailgate before the Bucs face the Lions. (Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

The Buccaneers offense responded to Detroit’s first touchdown with one of their own. Jameis Winston looked sharp on a series of playcalls that gave him opportunities in the middle of the field. He hit Jackson, Evans, Howard, and Martin on the same drive with passes on a drive that finished with a Doug Martin touchdown run of a few inches.

Tampa Bay might have a coach on the hot seat, an underperforming quarterback, and a season in utter ruin. Still, they refuse to give up. Tampa Bay still refused to quit on Dirk Koetter, even after a frustrating first three quarters. A slow, long drive at the end of the third and into the fourth resulted in a Winston touchdown pass to O.J. Howard to make it 21-14.

The Buccaneers continued their comeback by forcing a Lions punt born of too many Detroit penalties. Winston moved the ball well, and Peyton Barber did a good job as well, leading to a play action touchdown pass to eligible lineman Leonard Wester. Suddenly, Tampa Bay had managed to tie the game with 8:05 left in the fourth quarter.

After trading punts back and forth, Detroit found themselves with the ball inside the two minute warning. Some short passes put the Lions in Buccaneers territory with less than a minute to go. They managed to work their way into field goal position, and what’s more they actually ran the Buccaneers out of timeouts. When Matt Prater made the 46 yard field goal to put the Lions up 24-21, there were only 20 seconds remaining in the football game.

It seems unlikely to save Dirk Koetter’s job at this point, and it might not bring the Buccaneers another win for the rest of the season, but it is a promising sign that the personnel on the Buccaneers continue to play hard even after the season has crumbled disappointingly.

Looking ahead

Dirk Koetter’s uncomfortable homestand will only get worse from here.

The Buccaneers stay in Tampa for a Monday night game in week 15 against the Atlanta Falcons. During this game, Jon Gruden will be inducted into the Buccaneers Ring of Honor as a coach at halftime. This is a recipe that is sure to lead to conversations all week about Dirk Koetter being on the hot seat, and Buccaneers fans hoping Jon Gruden can be lured back to the sidelines.

There are likely to be chants at Raymond James Stadium about Gruden, and about Koetter. With the national spotlight, Winston and Koetter’s supposedly fractured relationship is going to be put under the microscope. On top of all of that, the Falcons will be heavily favored and come in needing the win.

At this point in the season, the Buccaneers can do little more than play spoiler. They missed that opportunity against both the Packers and the Lions. They’ll get a third shot at it on Monday night.

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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.