All eyes will be on rookie quarterback Jameis Winston this fall. But it will be the play-calling of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the biggest assistant coach hiring of 2015, that determines whether Winston—and the Bucs offense—sinks or swims
Almost four months before they selected Jameis Winston with the first pick of the draft, Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith made a move of equal importance to his club’s immediate future: tapping Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator. Given where the 2-14 Bucs were coming from, Koetter, who was fired as Atlanta’s OC with Mike Smith’s staff, represents the most significant assistant coach hiring of 2015.
When Smith returned to the NFL in 2014 after a one-year sabbatical, he took a flyer on Cal quarterback coaching aficionado Jeff Tedford as his offensive coordinator. A coronary angioplasty, however, took Tedford away from the job in September. He and the Bucs parted ways in December; quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo, 34, in his first NFL season, called every offensive play in 2014.
Blanket criticism of a coach’s play-calling is often cheap, but Tampa Bay’s negatives were hard to overlook. Arroyo’s offense never found rhythm. Despite having one quarterback with a tendency to sense phantom pressure (Josh McCown) and another who, though willing and able to stick balls through tight windows, needed to be aided by more controlled, short-intermediate play designs (Mike Glennon), the Bucs often tried to stretch the field vertically. They did this primarily through isolation routes on deeper dropbacks. That’s not the worst idea when your wideouts are jump-ball demons like Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, but it is a bad idea when you have limited speed at your skill positions and a mediocre quarterback playing behind what was easily the NFL’s worst offensive line.
Koetter had to maneuver around shoddy offensive line play during much of his three years in Atlanta. Even with a sound veteran quarterback like Matt Ryan, he learned how challenging the task can be. But often, his Falcons overcame those challenges.
Just like he had in Atlanta, Koetter has a pair of dynamo wideouts in Evans and Jackson. With Julio Jones and Roddy White, he often built around five-step timing dropbacks in order to minimize his line’s pass-blocking woes. Koetter proved shrewd at constructing these route combinations and at calling plays that were built off of one another.
For most of his career, Koetter has operated with autonomy. He was a head coach for three years at Boise State, then six years at Arizona State. He entered the NFL in 2007 as Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator, working under defensive-minded head coach Jack Del Rio for five years. Following that was the Atlanta stint under Smith, another defensive coach.
Most likely, Koetter would not have accepted the Bucs job if he wasn’t certain that Lovie Smith, another defensive-minded coach, would allow him the freedom he’s grown accustom to.
This isn’t to say Koetter wields one of the biggest sticks in Tampa. Smith and GM Jason Licht have control over the roster—including offensive personnel—and a few of the Glazer children who took over the family’s franchise in the wake of Malcolm Glazer’s passing in 2014 purportedly make their voices heard as well. Some who know Koetter well speculate that the 56-year-old wanted to draft Marcus Mariota first overall.
Not that Koetter is privately sulking now. Any good play designer would take a strong-armed pocket passer who can diagnose defenses. Winston checked out well in these categories at Florida State. The biggest concern with him—besides maturity and turnovers—is that, thanks to a long stride in his throwing motion, he’ll likely need plenty of space in the pocket. That’s not easy to come by in the NFL.
Recognizing that last year’s laughable collection of unathletic pass-blockers would not suffice, Licht and Smith spent a pair of second-round picks on linemen: tackle Donovan Smith (34th overall) and guard Ali Marpet (61st overall). Unproven professional entities, the rookie linemen (like their QB) could be poised for anything between failure and excellence. But unproven at least means they haven’t yet proved to be deficient, like predecessors Anthony Collins (overpaid and eventually released) and Patrick Omameh (unathletic and, hopefully, relegated to backup duties permanently). There are still concerns at other spots up front, though. Demar Dotson is adequate at right tackle. But at left guard, 11-year veteran Logan Mankins is wearing down and a liability in pass protection, while center Evan Smith has limitations that get exposed in one-on-one scenarios.
To draw one-on-one matchups against Tampa’s blockers last season, defenses frequently showed double-A-gap blitz looks. Until the rookies prove they can play, Koetter and his men should expect a steady dose of this in 2015.
Most likely, Winston and the O-line will have to be protected through play design, especially early in the season. This means defined reads and quick timing throws that get the ball out of the Winston’s hands. Typically, this sort of offense will throw in the shallow seams and flats. But the Bucs have limited depth at wide receiver (Louis Murphy is a respectable No. 3 but nothing more, and no other wideout has more than six career catches to his name). At tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Brandon Myers rely on size to compensate for a lack of swiftness. Overall, this passing game may lack the collective quickness needed in order to mount drives off of three-step timing passes. (Consider the Bucs the anti-Patriots, if you will.)
And so a big key becomes getting Evans and Jackson in one-on-one situations where they can post up and use their size. Think Plaxico Burress catching hitches and comebackers in his final years with the Giants. Though not fleet of foot, Evans’ and Jackson’s contested catch prowess extends downfield; both are extremely dangerous on deep balls. The puzzle Koetter must solve—that Arroyo never could—is how to incorporate this into the system without burdening the front line and quarterback.
Committing to a run-based approach might be the best solution. This doesn’t mean running the ball all the time (though, obviously, running is a key element of a run-based approach). Rather, it means operating out of run-based personnel: two backs, two receivers and one tight end. Or, a more modern approach: one back, two receivers and two tight ends. Either way, these packages likely keep the defense in its base personnel (4-3 or 3-4), which means fewer disguises and more vanilla looks for the rookie quarterback and pass protectors to sort out.
Koetter builds his gameplans entirely on opponents’ play-calling tendencies. By keeping the opponent in base packages, there are fewer tendencies to dissect, which means more time for his young offense to rep certain concepts in practice. And more room for gaining the comfort to install different aerial wrinkles, including out of play-action—a great way to create deep shots for lanky wide receivers.
Arroyo tried more run-based packages towards the end of last season, but by then injuries and the offensive line woes had become overwhelming. It’s critical the Bucs run the ball well enough to stay ahead in down and distance. They weren’t able to last year. Starting running back Doug Martin, in a contract year, must stay healthy and regain the acceleration and subtle wiggle that he showed while rushing for 1,454 yards as a rookie in 2012. Also, Charles Sims, last season’s third-round pick, must run more downhill since he doesn’t appear to have loose enough hips to consistently elude NFL defenders.
A lot of ifs are in the air with this offense, but all are more conquerable than the ifs this team faced last season. Especially now that Koetter is running the show.
Bucs Nickel Package
1. The most critical player on defense is edge-rusher Jacquies Smith. Undersized at 6-foot-2, 260, Smith plays with quickness, speed and natural leverage to bend the corner. Entering his fourth year after going undrafted, he came on strong in the second half of last season, recording all 6.5 of his sacks after Week 8 and providing the type of steady pass rushing pressure that a simplistic, execution-based defense like Lovie Smith’s Cover-2 zone requires. The onus is on Smith because the Bucs have no other promising pure edge rushers. Tampa signed ex-Lion George Johnson—another undrafted player—for $7-9 million (depending on incentives) over three years, a great addition, but he has never started a game in his four-year career.
2. Gerald McCoy remains the best three-technique in football, but you wonder if the Bucs feel compelled to manage his snaps. (He missed three games last year with a knee injury and struggled to stay healthy his first two years in the league.) Why else would they sign Henry Melton, himself a very good three-technique, when they already had Clinton McDonald on the second string? Of course, in Lovie Smith’s system, you can’t have too many pass rushers, even if it most of your best ones play inside.
3. In a pure Cover-2 scheme, corners and particularly safeties just have to be steady, not spectacular. Having said that, this defense badly needs Alterraun Verner to be better than he was a year ago. Too often, when it wasn’t a two-high safety coverage, receivers got over the top of the pricey free agent acquisition.
4. It’d be a shame to do a whole Bucs preview and not mention Lavonte David. So, out of properness and respect, here it is: Lavonte David is one of the three or four best sideline-to-sideline linebackers in the game.
5. It will be interesting to see how often (if ever) Koetter aligns tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins as an X-iso receiver on the weak side. Though not as limber as a Greg Olsen or even a Zach Ertz, Seferian-Jenkins split out wide like this a few times last season, with moderate success. The guess here: Koetter will use this formation, for two reasons. First, it’s a way to get Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson on the same side of the field. Second, aligning all receivers to one side and a tight end alone on the other usually reveals whether a defense is in man or zone. That’s a great way to help a rookie quarterback.