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Dirk Koetter Q&A: New Bucs Head Coach on Roots, Strategy and His Franchise QB

Jason ColeNFL AnalystMay 11, 2016

New Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter during a news conference at the team's training facility Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. Koetter replaces Lovie Smith, who was fired after the season ended. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. — First-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter keeps an array of interesting mementos around his office, starting with a collection of 12 helmets from every spot on his playing and coaching journey. The helmets line the top of a bookcase behind his desk. 

On a coffee table, he keeps a mint copy of Dr. Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go! When asked about the book, Koetter turned very serious. "That book has one of the best messages," Koetter said. "That's a great book for a football player to read."

Very true, and even for a coach. Particularly for a coach who wasn't expecting to be sitting in this specific office when the 2015 season ended.

Koetter sat down recently with Bleacher Report to discuss his surprising rise to head coach of the Bucs after spending last season as offensive coordinator under Lovie Smith.

Bleacher Report: So you grew up in Pocatello, Idaho. That's an interesting part of the football world.

Dirk Koetter: About 100 miles north of Salt Lake City and about three hours east of Boise.

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B/R: I've been up in Pullman, Washington, and Coeur d'Alene, but never down that way.

DK: That's not even close. Pullman is in Canada (smiles). That's way the hell up there near the panhandle. Pocatello is southeast Idaho. Pullman is on the Palouse.

B/R: Oh yeah, it has a great view of the Palouse, as much as you'd want to see of it.

Dennis Erickson circa 2001
Dennis Erickson circa 2001Jeff Gross/Getty Images

DK: But that Coeur d'Alene area is beautiful. Jake Plummer is up there, Dennis Erickson, Mike Price. They all have places up there.

B/R: Yes, Erickson and Price are part of that group of coaches up there from the Washington and Montana area. Kind of the Northwest Mafia of football. Were you part of that group?

DK: No, no, I was an outsider. I tried to bust into that group, but they're a tight-knit group. Price was at Weber State, Erickson was at Idaho and my dad was at Idaho State. My first college job was at San Francisco State, and one of their disciples, Keith Gilbertson, was there.

I tried to get in with Price and Erickson, and they both turned me down, so Gilbertson recommended me to Bob Stull. Stull is out of the Don James tree. He was up there with James at Washington with Warren Moon and those guys. So I went to UTEP with Bob Stull, so that was kind of my start. I missed out that whole Price, Erickson, Jack Elway tree. They had a good group. A bunch of them are around, like Scott Linehan with Dallas. He's out of that tree.

B/R: So why do so many coaches come out of that part of the country when we're not talking about the heaviest population?

Marvin Lewis, now with the Bengals
Marvin Lewis, now with the BengalsJoe Robbins/Getty Images

DK: The Big Sky Conference, back in the day, was a real powerhouse when it came to I-AA football, and so, at one point, Boise State won a couple of national championships, Chuck Pagano coached out of there. Marvin Lewis was up there with us, myself. Then Erickson had all his guys who were spread around. With the Montana schools, Marty Mornhinweg is out of there and coached a bunch of places.

That was a dynamic conference. It has kind of fallen off lately.

B/R: Was it because coaches were willing to take chances and be experimental because maybe the talent wasn't as good?

DK: Maybe. I think that conference was ahead of the game as far as throwing the ball. You kind of had some of the stuff that has morphed into the spread and the quick game. And up at Idaho State, when we won it in 1981, Dave Kragthorpe became the head coach, and he had been the offensive line coach at BYU, and he was out of that tree when BYU was unbelievably hot.

B/R: It's funny because Erickson traces back to San Jose State under Jack Elway, who brought that offense up from something his son, John, had played in at Granada Hills High School. That coach down in Granada Hills got it from the old Glenn "Tiger" Ellison book.

DK: I've got that Tiger Ellison book around somewhere.

B/R: Speaking of that, your dad was a coach, and he collected all sorts of coaching books along the way. Do you have a favorite memory of him that maybe inspired you to become a coach?

DK: Oh man, one favorite. I don't remember one favorite. There were so many things. When I was a kid, I loved everything about it. I begged my mom to take me up there every day and hang around. It was football, basketball, track. He was the head football, head track and assistant basketball coach, so I was up there being around the players, being around the coaches.

When I was a kid, the coaches used to come to our house after games, and I would be listening to those guys talk, and they'd be having a couple of beers and having some food with a 16-millimeter projector on the kitchen table. I'd lay on the floor under the table and listen to those guys talk about football. Shagging balls at practice, taking Gatorade to the players.

There are a million things I remember. Road trips in a bus…I don't know about one thing. Different things trigger different memories.

B/R: John Elway told me one time about learning how competitive his dad was. Jack was at Washington State coaching, and they lost a brutal game in the Apple Cup against Washington in Seattle. John was sitting in the bus after the game when his dad got on and said, "Sit there and shut up!" John didn't say a word the entire way back to Pullman.

John Elway circa 1988
John Elway circa 1988Focus On Sport/Getty Images

DK: (laughs) The reason I laugh is the whole time you're saying that—this wouldn't be my favorite memory—but the importance of winning and losing. My dad won a lot of games, and when we lost, oh man, it was similar. There wasn't a whole lot of conversation going on at our house.

B/R: Was it introspective for him?

DK: Definitely stewing in it. Playing it over and over in his head, going over the reasons why, and not let it happen again.

B/R: So did he start reading all those coaching books you mentioned before when he lost a game?

Dirk Koetter at Buccaneers minicamp
Dirk Koetter at Buccaneers minicampChris O'Meara/Associated Press/Associated Press

DK: In Idaho, the house we lived in had an upstairs and a downstairs. In our basement, we had a family room roughly the size of this office and we had this red-and-black-striped carpet. That was for the Highland Rams, that helmet you see over there (Koetter points to a helmet on the far right), and our colors were red and black.

Around that family room was all football stuff. Every football book ever written, and I can visualize in my head the Glenn "Tiger" Ellison book you mentioned, the cover of that. Every book ever written (about football) and there were tons of yellow legal pads sitting on every table with drawings.

As a kid, when my dad wasn't around, I'd be picking up those notebooks and looking at those pictures and flipping through those books. That was all in the basement…I remember right off the weight room at school, there were these storage closets with all the equipment, and then there was this cage. They called it the "helmet room."

Back in those days when I was a head coach, you had to fix the helmets. You didn't have equipment guys. You were the equipment guy. You fixed the helmets, you lined the field…my dad used to make me and my brother go do it. He had this push cart like those old chalk machines, except he'd put fertilizer in there to burn the lines so he wouldn't have to paint them for four months.

That was a nasty job right there. The smell and it was hot, and I'm sure we weren't using proper protective clothing when we were doing it, either.

B/R: You've worked with David Garrard, Matt Ryan and now Jameis Winston. You have gotten statistically excellent performances out of all of them. What is the key to making an offense quarterback-friendly?

Dirk Koetter and Jameis Winston
Dirk Koetter and Jameis WinstonJoe Robbins/Getty Images

DK: First of all, all three of the guys you mention are excellent quarterbacks. David Garrard is a much better quarterback than he is given credit for. It's really not a big secret. You take what guys are good at and you build it around that and try to avoid what they're not so good at. You listen to them. You get to know them. They know what they're good at and what they're not good at.

So as you build your stuff through the week—your game plan—they'll tell you they don't like that. You might say, "I think this would be really good this week," and they might say, "I don't like it." Maybe we try it in practice; maybe we don't.

B/R: But there are coaches who believe in their system, and there are coaches who believe in doing what a player is best at.

DK: Yes, we have a system that can switch. I've switched systems—not concepts, but systems—a lot. I know how to teach concepts, but systems are whether you call it "brown" or "black." To me, it really doesn't matter what you call it, and that's why I can learn to call stuff different, but the concepts don't really change.

B/R: Give me an example of a concept that has to be part of what you want.

DK: Just for example, when I went to Jacksonville, half of the offensive staff was new. Me, Todd Monken and Mike Shula were new. Mike Tice, Andy Heck and Kennedy [Polamalu] were holdovers. They had Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, and they had been second in the NFL in rushing the year before.

So here I come out of college, and we kept all their terminology in the run and the protections, and I brought my pass concepts. We were a word-based protection and route tree. So we might say "slide left" or "scat right" or whatever because that's how they were used to doing them. That's not how I was used to doing them.

When I went to Atlanta, they had been very successful before I got there, and I was the only new guy there. Why would you have Matt Ryan change the terminology he knew? Look, everybody in the NFL is running roughly the same plays, give or take. It's how you teach those plays and the details and how the quarterback calls it that are different. Some plays and concepts that I totally liked in Jacksonville, they just changed names when I got to Atlanta. We made them into their terms.

Matt Ryan
Matt RyanScott Cunningham/Getty Images

And when Lovie [Smith] brought me here, I was again the only new guy. All the offensive guys were the same, and so we kind of matched the Atlanta stuff with the stuff they were doing here to make it easier on them. When I was in Jacksonville, Kennedy [Polamalu] had a saying: "We can call it brown shoe if you want to."

All you have to have is a really broad outline of a system. Are you using numbers, or are you using words? I've used both. I believe in concepts, but whether you call it a Mike Martz or Norv Turner three-digit system or it's words, it's all the same stuff. Whether you call it "5-8-5" or "both stop," it's all the same. The nuance is where do you tell the quarterback to start versus middle open? Where do you tell him to start versus middle closed? What does he do if he gets four strong or four weak?

There are a million variances about how it all fits together. One of the things I will say is that you have to see it through the quarterback's eyes, and then it has to go through the offensive line next. That's something I learned from Dan Henning from all his time in the NFL with Joe Gibbs. See it through the quarterback's eyes, then to the O-line because they have the most to know. Then the tight ends, the running backs and the wide receivers, they'll get it.

B/R: I noticed you have designated one coach [Andrew Weidinger] to handle "game management." So many coaches try to handle that part of the game themselves. Why have you made it a separate task?

DK: Because I'm going to stay as the play-caller, and there are plenty of guys in the NFL who stay as play-callers as head coaches. There are just so many situations that come up in NFL game, whether it's clock management or just game-ending situations, to have someone that they're fully dedicated to that preparation in leading up to the game and on game day made sense.

Andrew Weidinger, then with the Falcons
Andrew Weidinger, then with the FalconsHandout/Getty Images

When I was the offensive coordinator, if I was up in the box, we always had a designated coach on the field that if I said, "This situation is up" and the head coach was on the other side of the phones talking to the defensive staff, that coach on the field would go remind the head coach about this or that. There is so much pressure when that clock is ticking, you have to have somebody who is on top of that and looking ahead.

We're going with a young guy who, between me and [Buccaneers defensive coordinator] Mike Smith, has been around us for like eight years. He's been a quality-control guy, but he knows everything inside and out, and he has a calm demeanor to him.

In a challenge situation, you have 10,000 guys on the phone yelling, "Challenge it, challenge it, challenge it!" You have to have someone who can take all the emotion out of it and answer the question, "Should we challenge it?" Or is it even challengeable? That's what I'm finding to be the hardest part, is it challengeable or not?

B/R: Did you come up with this because you have been known as an emotional guy?

DK: I can become emotional, but I'm usually not in games. In games, I try to be a little bit more level.

B/R: So in a game, you're trying to run things, and you have 20 guys on the phone or whatever…

DK: Too many (laughs).

B/R: So where have you seen it work before?

Jack Del Rio circa 2011
Jack Del Rio circa 2011Andy Lyons/Getty Images

DK: We had it that way in Jacksonville, and we had a guy to do that in Atlanta. Both Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville and Mike Smith in Atlanta would basically say, "The rest of you guys might as well shut up because I'm listening to this guy." If anyone mentions anything about a challenge, this is the guy we're going to listen to.

B/R: Is that timeout usage as well?

DK: We didn't do that before, but that's how we're going to do it going forward. I just think the way things have evolved in that area, that's one of the reasons we're dedicating one guy. It's not 100 percent of his time, but that's his main area of emphasis.

B/R: I'm fascinated by this because so many games come down to end-of-game or end-of-half situations. One of the reasons is that it's not by rote. A lot of strategy comes down to not just what you do, but how is the other team playing a given situation. That's why I disagreed with New England coach Bill Belichick going on fourth down twice in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game against Denver. He's the best in-game strategist there is, but I think he should have taken the field goals because Denver was just trying to run out the clock, not trying to score.

DK: So here's the deal, this is how I've always thought about it: You ever played blackjack? The dealer has a 10 showing. Do you hit on 16 every time or just when you think you should?

B/R: Depends on the count of the cards.

A dealer demonstrates how to play blackjack at a leisure exhibition in Tokyo on November 27, 2014. The Japanese government gave up to pass a bill to promote casino resorts in the currect session of the Diet as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the Lower
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/Getty Images

DK: You're not playing single deck; you're playing five decks. Dealer has a 10 up, and you have 16. Are you going to hit it 100 percent of the time? Again, that's what the book says you should do. How many people are disciplined enough to hit it every time with 16? You're on a roll, you've won 10 hands in a row, you have way more money bet out there, you have 16, the dealer has 10. You think to yourself, "Oh man, I have a lot of money out there, I know the book says hit it, but this time I'm not going to take a hit."

It's the same thing with coaching. Are you going to stay with your strategy every time? It's inside the 35 and 4th-and-2, am I going to go for it every time? That's what the book says you should do. The book says you should go for it every time.

B/R: But is the other team trying to run out the clock and is playing scared? Will they throw it?

DK: How is your defense playing? How is the wind blowing? Is it raining sideways?

B/R: In blackjack those factors don't exist.

DK: But there is momentum.

B/R: And there is emotion.

DK: Absolutely (laughing). There's pressure. It depends on how much money you have out there, and how much are you making?

B/R: I agree, that's why I love playing craps.

DK: I don't play craps.

B/R: It's the same idea. It's a numbers game. Are you going to push your bets all the time and play by the book, or are you going to play scared because you've lost some money?

DK: That's exactly it. That feeling you've got in your stomach—that's the same feeling I had as when I was a head coach in high school or in college, and are you going on your gut, or are you going on what the book says you should do?

B/R: The one that always gets me is when a team gets to 4th-and-goal from the 1 in the first quarter and calls timeout. Are you really telling me you didn't think this situation through during the week leading up to the game? In the second or third quarter, after the score has changed, I get it. In the fourth quarter at a critical time, I get it. In the first quarter. I don't get it.

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 03:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers lunges across the goal line against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 3rd quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Gr
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

DK: That's what makes the strategy part of it a great game.

B/R: With Jameis Winston, he has reported to camp in better shape than a year ago. He has worked hard this offseason. Tell me about his evolution from rookie to this point. Has there been a key moment for him as far as getting it?

DK: I think Jameis gets it, in general. He has been taught very well from his dad to Jimbo Fisher and his staff. I think he gets its. If there is a key moment, I think it was the first time we played Carolina last year where it was raining sideways. We throw four interceptions, fumble a snap on our own 20-yard line because it's raining.

I think on the whole turnover issue, that was probably my biggest knock on Jameis when we were studying him coming out. His last year at Florida State, they were winning a ton of games, but Jameis was turning the ball over and then making all these great second-half comebacks. I was telling him all the time, "Jameis, we're not Florida State." Florida State probably had the best players in every game they played that year.

It's not that way in the NFL. Everybody is really good. You can't turn the ball over like that. You can't take risks with the ball. I remember it like it was yesterday. We would be out there in OTAs last year throwing the ball, and there would be three or four interceptions a day in practice. I would say, "Jameis, how can I impress upon you any more that you can't do this?" But after that Carolina game—I think he would say the same thing—he did so much better taking care of the ball.

B/R: He had to learn from the pain of losing.

DK: The pain of losing and how in the NFL the fans can turn on you fast. Coming back from two touchdowns down in the second half is rough.

B/R: You have talked this offseason about the relationship between you two is not going to change. But there's still a difference between being the head coach, being in charge, being the heavy and being an offensive coordinator. How do you manage that?

Lovie Smith and Jameis Winston
Lovie Smith and Jameis WinstonChris O'Meara/Associated Press

DK: The one thing I would say is that first, let me say, that Lovie did an awesome job with Jameis. They met—I don't know how often exactly they met—but at least once a week in this office. I see Jameis and he would come up and meet with Lovie. That said, because Lovie was a defensive coach and he was calling the defense, I feel like I was the heavy for Jameis last year.

Again, I don't know what went on when Jameis and Lovie had their individual talks. Maybe Lovie got on him. I doubt it because that wasn't really Lovie's style. Now, go back to Florida State. Jimbo was the play-caller, and he was ripping Jameis all the time. I'm not a big rip-your-quarterback type of guy. I don't really believe in it. I'm not saying it's wrong. You have to coach what you believe in.

B/R: It's really about who you are.

DK: Yes, it's what you are. I tell Jameis all the time that I love watching those college scenes when him and Jimbo are arguing on the sideline, and I'm reading Jimbo's lips when he says, "Let me call the game!" I laugh every time I see that clip. But I don't think Jameis and my relationship is going to change that much.

I have a lot more on my plate, and he's got more on his plate. He's not a rookie anymore. The expectations for him are greater. Our quarterbacks coach, Mike Bajakian, is doing a great job. I was just sitting in on a meeting with them. I still sit in, I speak up when I have to. I see Jameis in the hall. I talk to him the same way I always do. We just both have more responsibility.

B/R: This team was really interesting last year. I don't know if you pay attention to yardage differential, but this team was really good in that area. The average offensive play by the Buccaneers was 5.9 yards, and the average play the defense allowed was 5.2 yards. A differential of plus-0.7 is usually playoff-caliber, and it ranked with the best in the league last year. But the team was only 6-10. How do you explain that?

DK: On offense, it's simple: The yards were good. The points were not so good. I think we were fifth in yards and 21st in scoring. Something like that. And if you look at what wins in the NFL, yards is not even in the top 10. Scoring is No. 3. We have to score more points. That's simple. We have to score more points.

On defense, probably anything I say will be taken the wrong way, so I'll just say our defense gave up 70 percent on completions. We did a good job against the run, but the completion percentage was way too high. That's not in the top 10, either, but that's way too high of a number.

B/R: So with two big receivers on the outside and a big tight end, you seem to have solutions in the red zone?

DK: When you talk about the big receivers, you're talking about Mike [Evans], Vincent [Jackson] and [tight end] Austin [Seferian-Jenkins]. You have to go back and look at how many times they played in the same game together. I don't think it's very high. Maybe five times last season. Austin and Vince both had health issues, and those were out of their control.

Mike Evans
Mike EvansStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

We can't just look and say, "We have big receivers, we're going to throw to them every week." That changes every week, what prevents you from scoring. Breakdowns happen, missing throws, missing plays, a turnover here, a turnover there. 

That happens every week, and it's not just a red-zone issue; it's an across-the-board issue. Doug Martin breaks a 60-yard run, gets tackled at the 10-yard line, we don't punch it in. In the Houston game, we miss four field goals. Things like that happened all the time.

B/R: With Seferian-Jenkins, he appears to be a guy who is on the cusp of breaking out. Is it simply about staying healthy for him?

DK: An old coach once told me that the greatest ability is availability. It's about being able to stay on the field. Austin, through no fault of his own, has had a bad string of luck here. It has hurt his development. It has hurt his production.

When Austin has been totally healthy, you look at his tape, he has been a good player. But if you're not healthy, you're not healthy. If he can make it through a season, we'll be better able to know if there is something else there. But until you're healthy and have a chance to play in 16 games, we don't even know that yet.

B/R: Let me switch gears to a tough subject with the Loren Wade situation. You dealt with an extremely tragic event when one of your players, Wade, shot and killed former ASU player Brandon Falkner in 2005 outside a Scottsdale club. I don't want to trivialize this, but was there a takeaway from that situation for you?

Loren Wade (No. 34)
Loren Wade (No. 34)Tom Hauck/Getty Images

DK: It was a tough situation. The first thing that comes into my head is tragic. That was a tragic, tragic situation when a totally innocent man lost his life. There's just no way in my wildest dreams could I have foreseen that event happening. I could never have foreseen that any of the players I have ever coached had that in him, Loren Wade being one of them. The fact is that two families' lives changed forever that night, the Falkner family and the Wade family.

B/R: Do you ever ask yourself, "Is there a way I could have recognized that?"

DK: There is no way in hell I could have recognized that. We have 90 guys on the field today. Go out there and tell me who has that in them. Who has that to be, at that moment, able in their mind to put a gun in a car window and shoot somebody and kill them? I can't go there. I can't imagine that.

B/R: I think the issue is that Wade had some transgressions before that. Nothing that was even close to that but still had some issues. Some people have suggested there were signs of trouble.

DK: All I would say is that guns and alcohol are not a good mix with anybody. Alcohol, guns and jealousy. Severe jealousy. Anyone who wants to comment on the Loren Wade situation, they probably don't know the whole story. Very few people know everything that I know about that. Again, my brain can't comprehend how anybody could even go there. It was a tragic situation that night.

B/R: Other coaches, such as Urban Meyer when he was at Florida, have gone through tragic situations with players, and it has affected how they deal with players from then on.

DK: You learn from every situation that you go through with players every time you're dealing with players the rest of your life. But this was so far out there. This is not something that was an inch out of the circle. This was way out there. It's so far out there, you can't even put it in perspective.

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