The Buccaneers essentially went without an offensive coordinator last year when Lovie Smith’s hand-picked quarterback guru Jeff Tedford underwent heart surgery in September. Quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo was thrown into the void as Tampa Bay’s play-caller, with results disappointing enough that the Bucs kicked Arroyo to the curb following the season. So when the Falcons fired Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s future in Atlanta looked uncertain, the Bucs didn’t dawdle in snapping up the veteran play-caller.
While there is plenty to glean from Koetter’s track record, which spans from the Fred Taylor/Maurice Jones-Drew days in Jacksonville to Atlanta’s pass-heavy attack the past three seasons, Koetter himself was nice enough to spell out his philosophy in an interview with the team’s website.
“There is a group of critical factors that are time-proven on winning in the NFL,” said Koetter. “Number one, don’t turn the ball over. As an offensive team, part of winning a game is not losing a game, and the fastest way to lose it is turning it over.”
“The second one is creating explosive plays,” said Koetter. “Your percentage of scoring touchdowns is going to go way, way up the more explosive plays you have. It’s one thing to say you’re going to beat down the defense, but you can make ‘explosives’ in your run game, you can have ‘explosives’ in your pass game. We’ve got to create ‘explosives.’
“Three and four would be sacks – we’ve got to cut down our sacks, every team is trying to do that – and we’ve got to be a great team on third down because third down is your money down,” said Koetter. “Those are four of 10 things that we’re really going to try to hang our hat on.”
To be sure, Koetter’s offenses have followed that blueprint en route to three top-10 (and five top-15) rankings in total offense in his eight seasons of NFL play-calling. His clubs have ranked in the top 13 teams in fewest turnovers seven of those eight seasons; check box number one. Last year the Falcons ranked fourth in passing plays of 20 or more yards, and during his five seasons calling plays in Jacksonville the Jaguars ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing plays of 10 or more yards; check box number two.
On Koetter’s watch the Jaguars ranked 10th in third down percentage, while his Falcons’ offenses ranked third in the league in that category during his tenure there; that’s a check in box number three. And despite myriad injuries along the offensive line Koetter’s Atlanta teams still ranked 11th in fewest sacks allowed; check and mate in box number four.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that those four areas were glaring weaknesses for the Buccaneers last season; they ranked second in giveaways, 25th in third-down percentage, allowed the third-most sacks and finished 22nd in plays of 25 yards or more.
So we know what Koetter wants to accomplish; how does he intend to pull it off?
During a media conference call introducing him as the Bucs’ OC, Koetter indicated that he won’t be looking to fit square pegs in round holes for the sake of a scheme. “First of all, there is no ‘my offense.’ When we get rolling down there in Tampa, it will be the Tampa Bay offense. There’s certain things that I believe in, just like every coach has things they believe in, and spreading the defense out is certainly one of those things. We’re going to do our best to take advantage of the talent that we do have… At the end of the day, I’m a big believer that the system that you have has to be flexible enough to take into account the various strengths and weaknesses of your players. I think it’s foolish to take a system and ram it down a player’s throat, if that doesn’t play to his strengths. With that said, you can’t always make it fit exactly perfect for every single guy you’ve got on the team, but for the guys that are touching the ball a lot, you need to play to their strengths in my opinion.”
It’s a stock answer, but let’s focus on the “spreading the defense out” portion of that statement.
While Koetter’s offense has its roots in the smash-mouth Erhardt-Perkins system, he’s added plenty of vertical elements to it—most notably during his collegiate stops at Oregon, Boise State, and Arizona State. Koetter’s passing game operates from a base of four vertical routes, not necessarily sending four receivers deep on each play but using personnel groupings and motion and the slot receiver to stress the safety and make him commit, opening up the field elsewhere.
Koetter is also expected to bring more up-tempo and no-huddle to Tampa Bay, and in Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson, Louis Murphy and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins the Bucs have a receiving corps that doesn’t take a back seat to the group he left behind in Atlanta.
That talent, combined with eight of Tampa Bay’s losses decided by less than one score last season, has Koetter believing the Bucs are much closer to a turnaround than their record might indicate. “That’s one thing I’m really excited about,” Koetter said of the team’s offensive talent. “The Bucs were right there in plenty of games. When you look at two 1,000 yard receivers, Louis Murphy having a really good year as a third receiver, and group of three tight ends and running backs… starting with just our skill players, we have some guys who can make those explosive plays. We have to do a great job of putting those guys in position to make plays.”
Of course, the big question—and one Koetter had no answer for during his introductory presser—is who will be the trigger man in Tampa Bay’s offense.
You can make a case for either of the top two incoming quarterbacks to be the Bucs’ best bet. Florida State’s James Winston is more experienced in a pro style offense and a better initial fit for what Koetter has historically run. But Koetter also has ties to Marcus Mariota’s college coach Mark Helfrich; Helfrich was quarterbacks coach under Koetter for a total of eight seasons at Boise State and Arizona State. And Koetter rolled with athletic David Garrard at quarterback in Jacksonville during his time there.
Koetter claimed during his opening presser that it wasn’t his decision to make, but the Buccaneers didn’t bring him in to foist upon him a quarterback he didn’t want. He’ll certainly be involved, with the upside being his bringing to Tampa Bay an offense that matches a Falcons attack that ranked in the NFL’s top 10 in total offense two of his three seasons in Atlanta.