Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter likes calling plays, and has done it his whole career. But his offense was widely criticized last year for being predictable and inefficient; specifically, his insistence on running the ball early in first quarters and on first downs, one of Koetter’s tenets, actually helped to put the Bucs in huge holes early in games, forcing them to become one dimensional and pass to catch up late in games. This is because passing is far more efficient than running and statistically leads to less punts and more points, and the Bucs’ running game wasn’t good; this gave their opponents a huge advantage as they passed early instead and opened leads while the Bucs continued to put themselves in 3rd and long situations that are difficult to convert. Unfortunately, the Bucs also had the worst defense in the league, leaving the offense stuck fighting a war that was impossible to win. Tampa Bay limped to a 5-11 record.
But those alleged issues with his play calling didn’t just hurt the Bucs last year - it hurt them the year before, too. In fact, under Dirk Koetter’s play calling in 2016 and 2017 nobody rushed more on first downs early in games than the Bucs, almost 66% of the time, despite the fact that the passing game yielded more than twice the yardage on average than the running game and a much higher success rate.
Coming into the 2018 season Dirk Koetter was on the hot seat; the Bucs tried to overhaul their defensive line in an effort to improve the defense, and fans wondered what changes the Bucs might make to their offense. But if there were going to have any success they would need to change how they approached games. Specifically, they needed throw, and throw early and often.
The question was whether Koetter was willing to set aside his ego and turn play calling over to his offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who was previously the head coach of Southern Miss. It’s not that anyone thought or knew Monken was better than Koetter at calling plays, or even good at it, just that it was obvious Koetter was not, or that he was too resistant to change.
So it was a pleasant surprise when it was announced that Monken would call plays in the preseason. While it was a gamble for Koetter, it was also a big admission, and one that could not have been easy to make. It paid off in a good way during the preseason, and the Bucs’ offense, and especially their quarterbacks, played lights-out football. It was obvious to everyone watching what needed to happen.
But could Koetter let it go? It was reportedly a hard decision for him; once you go, you can’t go back, and it was one of the things he enjoyed most about coaching. He kept it a secret right up until kick-off today and even then, he had a copy of the play sheet in his hands.
But the announcers for Fox Sports confirmed that Monken was indeed calling plays (from the booth), and his debut could not have gone any better. Fitzpatrick was incredible, with several deep bombs on the money. Monken mixed up the pass and the run, and at halftime the Bucs were cruising along at an unbelievable 9.6 yards per play. They had eight plays of 20+ yards. They weren’t just creating scoring opportunities, they were converting them as well, going two for three in the red zone with touchdowns, and had 31 points, a franchise record for one half.
The second half was more of the same, and the Bucs finished with 48 points, tied for a franchise record, and 8.5 yards per play. Ryan Fitzpatrick finished 21-28 for 417 yards and four touchdowns, a 14.9 yards per attempt average. That average should be the highest of his entire thirteen-year career. The offense’s 8.5 yards per play is the team’s highest since 2012 and the second-highest going back to 2000. Of the 4,352 total regular season NFL games since 2000, 8.5 yards per play would rank in the top 50.
Even the offensive line looked really good, and didn’t allow a sack.
The whole thing was glorious. Amazing. It was the inside of Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase. Bask in it’s glow.
But it was so good, it’s also unsustainable.
Bucs gave up 475 yards of total offense and still won vs. Saints today. Only fourth time in team history they've done that. Beat Falcons (496 yards) in OT in 2015, beat Eagles (506) in 2006, beat Vikings (543) in 1984.— Greg Auman (@gregauman) September 9, 2018
Bucs' Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 417 yards on 28 attempts today. Only twice in NFL history has a QB had more yards on that few attempts: Steve McNair threw for 421 on 27 throws in a 2003 game, and Joe Namath threw for 496 on 28 throws in a 1972 game.— Greg Auman (@gregauman) September 9, 2018
If you like yards/attempt as a passing stat, Ryan Fitzpatrick had a ridiculous 14.89 today in win vs. Saints. It's the highest in any game with 25+ passes since 2014. Most ever in a Bucs game with 25+ passes; Vinny Testaverde had a 14.52 day in a 1992 win against Packers.— Greg Auman (@gregauman) September 9, 2018
That’s okay! This game was one for the record books. And they did it versus what was a top ten defense last season.
But we still have to acknowledge that the Bucs’ defensive performance was just as equally bad. Perhaps forcing a fumble is a skill, but once the ball is on the ground, it’s 50/50, pure luck. The Bucs recovered both of the Saints’ fumbles. A few unlucky bounces and the Bucs could have easily wasted this offensive performance. About the only thing that went wrong for the Bucs was kicker Chandler Catanzaro’s miss that would have iced the game with a three-score lead. The Saints scored 16 points in the final quarter, and Tampa is now 1-0 in one-score games in 2018. The Bucs also finished only converting two of their four red zone opportunities into touchdowns, while the Saints converted four of five.
Despite trying to bring this game into some grounded perspective, it is now impossible for Koetter to go back to calling plays next week. As Monken called them up, Koetter would mark them off on his play sheet, so he’s still clearly very much involved. But unless the offense falters several games in a row it appears to be Monken’s responsibility going forward.
Bucs Nation will have more on exactly what Monken did to attack the Saints’ defense in film review, but for now, let’s celebrate!