Sean McVay and Dirk Koetter, head coaches of the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively, had back-to-back media sessions at the same podium on Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. Each coach held court for 15 minutes, but the topics McVay fielded were generally of a more positive bent than those presented to Koetter. That's the result of the Rams coming of a surprise playoff season while the Buccaneers slipped to a disappointing 5-11 in 2017.
The situation was quite a bit different at least year's Combine, when Koetter had just finished a promising first year at the Bucs' helm while McVay was taking over a Rams team that had been 4-12 in 2016.
"I just happened to walk in and see Sean McVay at the podium," said Koetter on Wednesday. "A year ago, we were coming off 9-7 and everyone thought we were the next greatest team in the world and no one was picking them to go where they went. We weren't having to talk about having too many holes last year. Based on how you play the year before, there are perceived strengths and weaknesses for the next year. Some of them are legit."
That slip from 9-7 to 5-11, along with some obvious shortcomings in such areas as the pass rush and the rush defense, has certainly created a different perception of the Buccaneers this year. As the two main avenues of roster reconstruction – free agency and the draft – approach, some see Tampa Bay with a lot of glaring needs. Internally, though, this team is as optimistic about the coming season than it was a year ago, despite the fact that it plays in a division that just sent its three other teams to the playoffs.
"We feel like we are very, very close…very, very close," said Licht. "I'm very optimistic about this coming year, but it's good to have a tough division. I know it sounds crazy to say it, but I'd rather play in a tough division, and I know our players would too than in a weak division."
Some of that optimism comes from the fact that the Buccaneers, in a more specific sense, were very close on a lot of Sundays last fall. Tampa Bay went 3-7 in games decided by seven points or less and 1-4 in games decided by three points or less, and in many of those outings the Bucs had a chance to win at the end. Mostly, they did not do so, and there were some fairly clear reasons why, one of those being a quarterback who dealt with a shoulder injury for much of the year. But those aren't excuses; the Bucs were a 5-11 team and deserved to be so. Instead, they are issues that can be corrected, and that's why the Bucs see themselves as a team that could have fared much better in 2017.
"You can point to a lot of things, and as an organization we're not going to make excuses," said General Manager Jason Licht. "But we feel like we are very, very close. I know the season didn't show that with the five wins, but we had a quarterback who was in a lot of pain on a throwing shoulder, and as we sit back and look back at it now, a lot of the throws that he couldn't make affected our offense. Jameis [Winston] is a super-competitive guy. You wouldn't put him out there if he was in danger of injuring the shoulder worse, but when you have a starting quarterback who's affected by his throwing shoulder, it's not going to be a fine-oiled machine out there. We had turnovers and we had 10 games where we were within seven points. We were 2-7 in games of six or less points. We didn't close out games well. If I had to point to [a few] things, [it would be] the pain that Jameis was going through, the inability to close out games, and turnovers. These are all things that we think we can fix."
The Bucs are confident because they believe they have two things: talent and the right amount of passion.
"I believe, and I'm not the only one here, that we have a very, very good core group of players in terms of what they bring and add to the locker room," said Licht, "and we need to add to that."
As for the passion, that was on display in the locker room after the Bucs' narrow loss in Carolina in Week 16, when tempers flared between some teammates.
Photos of the Buccaneers during their NFL Scouting Combine. Photos by AP Images.
"Looking back on it now, I did like the passion and energy that I did see out of the young players, wanting to hold people accountable," said Licht. "I loved it.
"What I don't think people realize was just how close our team was coming together and galvanizing. They really love playing for this coach, for Dirk. They believe in him, I believe in him, our roster believes in him and our assistant coaches. They played their asses off for him and it was really cool to see that. Not that they weren't playing hard before, but at the end of the year the focus was, 'We've got to do everything we can for this leader of our football team, for Dirk."
Koetter, in turn, wants to do whatever he can to put those players in position to do better on the bottom line in 2018.
The number-one thing I have to do better is, I have to help our guys…we have to figure out a way, when it comes down to winning time, we have to figure out a way to win," he said. "We tied for the most one-score games [in the NFL], 10. There was more than one team that had 10 one-score games, but of the teams that had that many, we had the lowest winning percentage. The fact that we were 5-11 – our guys played hard enough. We played hard enough. We can make all the excuses we want, but we played hard enough."