Coaching changes are more fun to talk about than they are in reality
Every week, the prevailing narrative of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2017 season gets more grim.
Three weeks ago, following a blowout loss to the Cardinals, the Bucs’ season and hopes for improvement were on the line. The next week, after a loss at Buffalo, they faced a critical game at home against Carolina to attempt to right the ship, but there were signs of something brewing on offense.
After a no-show against the Panthers, that offensive optimism was gone, and the question became how far back the Buccaneers would slide off their 9-7 campaign in 2016. Then the Buccaneers played a non-competitive game at New Orleans, featuring a stupid fight started by the team’s two best offensive players.
Now that narrative is focused squarely on Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter. The question now is whether Koetter’s leadership is really what the Buccaneers need, or whether it’s time to consider moving on. Just two seasons after firing Lovie Smith after two seasons, Bucs fans are once again preparing themselves to go Coach Shopping.
Of course, fans don’t get to have much of a say in the process. Sure, people can take out billboards demanding Greg Schiano be fired, but by the time those billboards went up it’s likely that Schiano’s fate had been sealed already. The same is true of Koetter; his employment status will not be up to a fanbase understandably short on patience.
The fact is that Dirk Koetter will almost certainly finish the season. If Schiano was allowed to finish the 2013 campaign, and Raheem Morris was allowed to finish in 2011 when his team had clearly given up on him, it’s highly unlikely that Dirk Koetter will be fired for considerably less than either of those guys until January. That gives the coach eight weeks to save his job, a task likely to include the following:
1: Koetter has to prove he hasn’t lost the team. This is first and foremost, because the fight started by Jameis Winston and escalated by Mike Evans last week is the kind of sign that implies the coach has lost control. Winston might not play, and probably should not play the rest of this season, but he will still be part of the locker room and the team culture. He, and the rest of the players on the Bucs, will either rally around their coach or they might as well hand him the pink slip themselves.
2: The Buccaneers need to win a couple of games before the season’s over. This is where Sunday’s game at home against the Jets comes in. The Jets have a surprising record, but few would suggest they’re a “good” team. Josh McCown is their quarterback, and Buccaneers fans who haven’t erased him from their memories will remember that Josh McCown is a lot of likable things but certainly not Canton Material. A loss would look really, really bad for a Tampa Bay team looking worse every week. A loss by more than one score might bring the axe closer.
If the fans were putting together a new coach wishlist, entry number one would be Jon Gruden. Ask a Buccaneers fan about Koetter’s situation, and many will bring up a theory that Gruden is getting anxious to coach again and the Buccaneers could bring him in. No less an expert than Michael Lombardi has whispered about this.
The upside of what Gruden would bring to this version of the Bucs is pretty obvious. In the 2017 season, the Buccaneers seem to lack a strong game plan week in and week out. Gruden’s devotion to film and his legendary hours spent on the job would likely result in a more clever and unpredictable offense for Tampa Bay.
What’s more, Jameis Winston’s skillset and ceiling are somewhat similar to a couple of very successful quarterbacks Gruden worked with as an assistant coach: Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb. If he could bring Winston closer to those guys, it would send the Tampa Bay squad to a new level.
There are some questions that people do not want to ask, however, that make Gruden a more complicated idea in practice than in theory. Most notably, it’s unclear what Jon Gruden would do with a team’s defense. For his entire time in Tampa, Gruden had Monte Kiffin running a defense that had been installed before Gruden ever showed up. Before that he worked under Al Davis, and was not able to bring in his own defensive assistants. It’s unclear if he has any.
Gruden would also likely want a change at General Manager, either to Gruden himself or to a hand-picked friend that Jon wants to run the team. In 2003, that friend was Bruce Allen, and I’m still not sure the Bucs have ever recovered from the damage done by running Rich McKay out of town. In 2018, that could be the aforementioned Michael Lombardi, undoubtedly sharp football mind with mixed front office results. Whoever it is, they would be making decisions alongside Gruden. I urge Bucs fans demanding Gruden to take a trip down memory lane and remember the personnel decisions made under Bruce Allen.
Jon Gruden would also be a coach who doesn’t need to coach. Having been successful on Monday Night Football as an enthusiastic broadcaster, we’re talking about a person who is able to leave the sidelines and return to the booth at any moment.
All this is to say that while there is a clear reason people want Gruden, be careful what you wish for.
Of course, there is another way that Dirk Koetter’s job could be saved.
Coaches cost money. The Glazer family could fire Dirk Koetter, but they will still have to pay him the remaining three years of his five year deal. This despite the fact that they paid Lovie Smith ten million dollars to not coach the Buccaneers.
It is unclear, after a trip to google, how much Dirk Koetter makes per year, but we know that he signed a five year contract to be the head coach. Suppose he made something close to the five million a year Lovie Smith made; that would mean a fifteen million dollar payout to let go of Koetter.
The problem with that is, the Glazer family tends to only lay out that kind of money for a coach when it’s a coach applying for the Manchester United job. That’s Jose Mourinho money (he makes 15 million pounds per year). To fire Koetter and bring in a Jon Gruden, the family would have to put as much money into the Buccaneers’ head coaching position as they put into hiring Manchester United managers.
Since the Glazer family bought Manchester United, the money they have spent on managers for that team has dwarfed the amount of money spent on the Buccaneers’ entire front office. Gone are the days of Tampa Bay having the highest-paid assistant coach in football. Mourinho makes more in one year of coaching the Red Devils than Jon Gruden made from his first Buccaneers contract. Dirk Koetter’s salary might not be enough to pay one of Mourinho’s assistants.
Mourinho is currently trying to get an extension on a contract that expires in 2019. Presumably, that extension will come with some sort of raise because that’s how these things generally work.
It’s worth wondering, then, if the money that Bucs fans want the Glazers to spend on bringing in Gruden or another notable coach is about to go straight into the pocket of The Special One.
The fun part of all of this, if there is one, is that everybody gets to come up with their own wild ideas on what we would do if we were in charge. Gruden is the popular pick, but for my part I have an equally unlikely idea that would cost Mourinho money (that is to say, it won’t happen on this side of the pond) and at least on paper seems interesting.
The first step involves convincing Peyton Manning to be the next offensive coordinator of the Buccaneers, complete with playcalling responsibilities. It was long said of Manning that “he was his own OC,” and while that’s a dubious claim in some ways he certainly called his share of plays at the line. Manning developing Jameis Winston, and developing an offense, would be a very interesting proposition. If he’s successful, he could eventually transition to head coach, meaning the Bucs’ next coach should be somebody capable of mentoring Peyton Manning. Ideally, that somebody would have a history working with Manning, and a resume that proves he knows what he’s doing as a head coach. In a perfect world, this would be a Hall of Famer.
As it turns out, there is a Hall of Fame NFL coach who lives in Tampa and worked with Peyton Manning quite a bit. Tony Dungy has shown zero interest in coming out of retirement to this point, and it’s unclear whether anybody has really approached him about it. Still, with a little bit of money and the understanding he would be there to groom a replacement and ride off into the sunset, is it impossible to imagine Dungy back on the Raymond James Stadium sideline?
If the Glazers really wanted to treat the Buccaneers like United just this once, bringing in a defensive coordinator like a Gus Bradley or one of Mike Tomlin’s defensive assistants in Pittsburgh would help modernize Dungy’s defensive philosophy into something a little more equipped to deal with today’s offenses.
The bottom line on Koetter is that he has, presumably, eight weeks to show that his tenure can be salvaged. It really wouldn’t be too hard to imagine him doing something that keeps him around for at least another year. All it would take is the team playing hard for Koetter, winning a couple of games, and showing that they haven’t given up on the man in charge. After all, retaining Koetter would be the cheapest option, and Jose Mourinho has to get paid for all those trophies he hasn’t won yet. The Bucs might need a special coach, but the Glazers already employ one of those over in England and it takes a bite out of the ol’ budget.
For now, with the season in the toilet and the team looking as miserable as the fans, all Bucs fans have is dreaming of how they can get out of this mess. The unfortunate part is that dreams, as much as we all have them and all want them, rarely become reality.