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Tampa Bay Goes Back to the Drawing Board After Firing Dirk Koetter

The Buccaneers bet their future that Koetter could bring the best out of Jameis Winston, the no. 1 overall pick in 2015. After two consecutive 5-11 seasons and another last-place finish in the NFC South, they will look for a new head coach to turn their franchise around.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers promoted offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to head coach in 2016, they were betting their future on Koetter and Jameis Winston, his quarterback pupil, charting a new course after five consecutive last-place finishes in the NFC South. On Sunday, Tampa Bay fired Koetter after a 5-11 season. He finished with a 19-29 record in three years, including two more last-place finishes in the NFC South.

As 2018 wound down and Tampa Bay was eliminated from playoff contention, Koetter was beginning to lose the locker room. On Thursday, ESPN reported that receiver DeSean Jackson, who is under contract next season for a non-guaranteed $10 million, wants out. Jackson was inactive Week 17, when Tampa Bay lost 34-32 to Atlanta.

”It’s every man for himself at this moment,” tackle Demar Dotson told Rick Stroud of The Tampa Bay Times earlier this month. “I’m not going to worry about saving Dirk’s job, I’m worried about saving my own.”

There were some bright spots this season. Under offensive coordinator Todd Monken, Tampa Bay’s offense was one of the best in franchise history, entering Week 17 ranked 13th in the league in points scored (tied for the second-best mark in franchise history) and third in the league in total yards (the best finish in franchise history). The team started the season 2-0 thanks to a resurgence of Ryan FitzMagic. Yet their defense entered the final week of the season ranked 30th in points allowed, mitigating their offensive achievements, and Winston and Fitzpatrick turned the ball over too often to stay competitive. Monken’s contract is up at the end of the season, and it’s unclear if he’ll be retained.

Koetter was hired as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in 2015, just months before the team drafted Winston no. 1 overall. Koetter was promoted to head coach the following season, and the two were considered to be organizationally paired at the hip.

“We came in this thing together,” Winston said about Koetter on Thursday.

Now the biggest question for Tampa Bay is what to do with Winston. He was suspended for the first three games of this season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. The suspension came following a league investigation into a 2016 incident in which an Uber driver said Winston groped her. He is set to make a (non-guaranteed) $20.9 million in 2019 and become a free agent in 2020. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Sunday that the team will bring Winston back in 2019 as the starting quarterback, but his relationship with Tampa Bay’s next coach may determine Winston’s future beyond next season.

Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht will oversee the coaching search, according to a team statement. Whoever gets the job will inherit a motley crew on a cursed ship. Amazingly, Koetter finished with the third-best winning percentage in team history behind Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden, which is disheartening considering he was 19-29 (.396). That ineptitude underscores how Koetter’s failures are just the latest for what is quietly one of the worst franchises in American sports. Since joining the NFL in 1976, the Bucs have won their division five times and finished last 21 times, including seven of the last eight years. Of all of the coaching vacancies in the league, Tampa Bay might be the toughest ship to turn around.