Six days before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2016 campaign came to an end, Head Coach Dirk Koetter was asked how he would assess his team's full-season performance. Koetter responded that the most appropriate way to judge a team, in his estimation, was to determine how close it came to meeting its full potential. He also deferred that judgment to a later day in order to stay focused on preparations for the team's season finale.
On Sunday, not long after the Buccaneers won that last game, 17-16 over the Carolina Panthers, Koetter gave an indication of how he might be leaning in that assessment.
"I think we have to remind ourselves, this is a tough league," he said. "Every team has really good players and really good coaches. It's not easy. I believe a team is judged by how close they come to achieving up to their talent level. I'll be honest with you, I think this team did a pretty good job in that area."
The Buccaneers finished 9-7 and missed out on the playoffs on a tiebreaker. They improved by three games from the previous year's record, won eight of their last 12 and finished above .500 for the first time in a half-dozen years. They are left with the clear glow of promise competing with the disappointment of not grabbing a playoff spot that was, for a time, within their reach.
"What I told the team is, 'Only one team takes home the ring and this year, it's not going to be us.' So, even though we had improvement in a lot of areas, some huge improvement in some areas, ultimately, not what we're shooting for. The bar has definitely been raised and I really, really appreciate the effort of our players. I do think we came close to achieving the potential of this team – close, but not quite. I think the future is very bright.
Tampa Bay's defense declined in the league's yardage ranking from 2015 to 2016 but improved from 23rd to 15th in points allowed and gave up three fewer points per game, a significant margin. That middle-of-the-pack ranking in scoring defense isn't misleading, but it doesn't show the in-season improvement the Bucs made while adjusting to Mike Smith's new defensive scheme. From Week 10 on, over an eight-game span, Tampa Bay gave up just 17.1 points per game, the fourth-lowest total in the NFL. That was despite facing top-five offenses three times in that span, plus two more in the top 14. The Buccaneers led the league in third-down defense, allowing a success rate of 34.4%. Koetter considers that statistic one of the best indicators of success on defense.
"Even though we went from allowing 26 points a game a year ago to 23 points a game, 26.1 to 23.1, think how much better that number would've been had the offense not put our defense – that goes back to turnovers - in such short field so many times," said Koetter. "Our defense came a long way this year. I think the greatest stat out there that says the most about our season is going from 30th in the league in third-down conversions to first in third-downs allowed. That's a huge, huge improvement."
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers also scored three fewer points per game in 2016 than a year ago. The offense didn't collapse by any means, but it didn't take the expected leap forward after a very promising first year with Jameis Winston at the helm. The most obvious difference was in the rushing attack, which produced 34 fewer yards per game in 2016 after ranking fifth in the league in 2015. Koetter rightly points out that injuries limited the 2015 dynamic duo of Doug Martin and Charles Sims to far less production in 2016. Those two had 37 gains that fall into the Bucs' definition of "explosive plays" a year ago, only eight this fall.
And it's in that explosive-play category that Koetter sees the greatest room for improvement. Tampa Bay's ups-and-downs in the turnover category were well-documented in 2016, and they very closely mirrored the team's moves in the standings. Like most coaches, Koetter considers turnovers the most important statistical indicator of success. Second on his list, offensively, is explosive plays.
"The biggest negative is in explosive plays, he said. "We were averaging just under nine a game a year ago and we're just under seven a game this year, so almost two a game in explosives. Even though Mike Evans and Cam [Brate] had really good years, we actually went down by four explosives in those two guys. They went from 46 a year ago to 42 this year. So, I've said many, many times that we believe besides turnovers, explosive plays are the next biggest factor in winning and losing and that was our biggest drop-off on offense this year is in explosive plays and that was both in the running game and in the throwing game."
Again, Koetter intends to judge his team based on how close it came to living up to its potential, and some of the areas in which the team didn't excel might have been out of reach with the current personnel. Certainly the quest for more big plays would be helped by adding speed and explosiveness to the team's group of skill-position players.
"Yeah, definitely, we need more speed and when we say playmakers, playmakers and explosive plays are one in the same," said Koetter. "[We need] guys that can make explosives, guys that can catch a 10-yard pass, break one tackle and turn it into a 30-yard gain. Our run-after-the catch is not where it needs to be. And again, anything that we're saying here is not an indictment on the guys we have because the guys you have are the guys you have and you've got to coach the heck out of them.
"Once again, it goes back to the thing I said in the beginning, I think this team did a good job of playing as close to their talent level. That's a hard thing to judge, it's not an exact thing. In my opinion, we played close to our talent level."