By GARY SHELTON
Forget the praise he got as a coordinator. He had never been a head coach, and because of it, some were worried.
The schedule looked tough, especially for a team that had spent most of a decade and a half swallowing dirt. The culture stunk. The expectations were low. And no one knew if the new guy in charge was really any different after all.
Slowly, Tony Dungy proved himself.
Quickly, Dirk Koetter is doing the same thing.
Go back 20 years ago, and you will see similarities. Dungy was quietly confident. Koetter is a bit louder, but he isn’t filled with self-doubt, either. Dungy had better weapons on defense. Koetter has better weapons on offense.
Really, however, both of them faced the same chore: A team that had grown use to finishing second on Sunday. The Bucs expected to lose; that was one of the first things Dungy had to change. Also, Koetter. Dungy won one of his first nine games. Koetter won one of his first four.
When Dungy took over the Bucs, the team had lost for 13 straight seasons, and 12 of those were seasons of double-digit losses. When Koetter took over. the team hadn’t won a playoff game for another 13 seasons, and seven of those had been double-digit losses. In other words, ouch.
There are other similarities. Dungy didn’t pretty up his playbook with gimmick plays. Koetter hasn’t, either. But slowly, Dungy’s players got better, and the scores got closer. Dungy’s team won five of its last seven that year, and at 6-10, the team poured Gatorade over him. Koetter has won four in a row, and just you wait. The guy’s going to get wet yet.
Dungy had a very good defensive staff, especially Monte Kiffin. Koetter has a very good defensive staff, especially Mike Smith. The Bucs defense, then, got nine sacks out of under-tackle Warren Sapp. The Bucs defense, now, has gotten seven out of McCoy (with a quarter of the season to play). Then, a young linebacker (Derrick Brooks) was replacing an older one (Hardy Nickerson) as the tackle leader. Now, a young linebacker (Kwon Alexander) is replacing an older one (Lavonte David) as the tackle leader.
People forget what a mess that first season was for Dungy. There was a vote for the new stadium, and Sapp was irked at Sam Wyche, and Trent Dilfer was irked at Sam Wyche, and an assistant coach has said that Brooks was a horrible prospect, and the team had lost forever.
And so you ask. Can the next few years lead to another run (five playoffs in six years) like Dungy had with the Bucs?
Look, 12 games in is awfully early to believe that the Bucs have another Dungy on their hands. Still, you’d have to be blind not to notice the way both coaches left dysfunction behind.
The advantage that Bucs team had was there were at least two defensive players who made the Hall of Fame, plus semifinalist John Lynch, plus not-eligible-yet Ronde Barber. The advantage this one has is that it has a better quarterback. Most of Dungy’s early teams were quarterbacked by Trent Dilfer. Jameis Winston is far and away better.
In two years, Winston has 7,222 yards. Dilfer never threw for as many as 3,000 yards. His best season was 21 touchdowns; Winston has beaten that twice already. Not only that, but he’s the guy the Bucs rally behind.
“I think there’s definitely something to that and there’s different styles – I’m sure (New England quarterback) Tom Brady and (Green Bay quarterback) Aaron Rodgers and (Pittsburgh quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger and we’re seeing one of the best in (New Orleans quarterback) Drew Brees this week, they all have their own style,” Koetter said Monday. “As you said, leadership can take on many forms, but you also have to be able to back it up with your play and Jameis has done that. He’s got a unique style I would say, to pro football. That’s part of his youth. We’ve got to keep reminding ourselves he should be a senior in college right now. But it’s refreshing – I’ve said it many times, if you didn’t know better, it could come across almost as corny sometimes, but when Jameis does it, it’s not. I’m saying, it doesn’t come across as corny at all when he does it. If I said some of the stuff he did, or some other quarterbacks I’ve been around – because it wouldn’t be them. But that’s Jameis and that’s really who he is, it’s who he is every day. And after the players are around it, they’re attracted to that because sometimes Jameis says things that they wish they could say, or they wish they had it in them to say. And then he backs it up.”
One thing the Bucs got used to in Dungy’s regime was that December games mattered.
Don’t look now, but they do again.
“It’s a delicate balance because all I control is what I say to them in the other room and there’s just a lot boiling, swirling around these guys right now,” Koetter said. “And it’s all positive, but you can see – some guys I think can shut it out, but guys – whether it’s family, friends, media, we’ve gone from a team that didn’t get a whole lot of attention to a team that’s getting more. And hey, that’s all great, but it doesn’t do anything for you on Sunday.
“You’ve got to play on Sunday and to be honest, after looking at the tape, I don’t think we played great yesterday. We got the win, but when you really look at it, did we do anything – we made plays when it counted and the back-to-back plays of [punter] Bryan Anger’s punt down to the 7-yard line and then the pick-six on the next play, those two plays flipped the momentum back because we were really just kind of hanging on for a big part of that game. And then I thought we finished the game well. I thought we played it better overall in the second half, but I don’t think we played overall as well in that game than as we had the last three weeks. And I know for a fact we’re going to have to play better against New Orleans.”
Really, that’s what the two men have in common. They build. I don’t know if I ever heard Tony Dungy make an excuse for a player he put onto the field. Same thing with Koetter. They expect excellence.
Eventually, Dungy found it.
Eventually, Koetter may, too.
(Gary Shelton is one of America’s most-honored and distinguished sports journalists. Gary has spornamed the Associated Press Sports Editors’ No. 1 national sports columnist twice, has been a top five finisher five ot,her times and was chosen by sports editors in the top 10 columnists eight different years. He has been selected Florida’s Sportswriter of the Year six times. He was a columnist with the St. Peterburg/Tampa Bay Times for 25 years after joining the newspaper from The Miami Herald. Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls and 10 Winter and Summer Olympics, The Masters, the World Series, the Stanley Cup Finals and national championship in college football and basketball — all on multiple occasions over the past four decades. He currently has his own website — garysheltonsports.com — blanketing all sports in the Tampa Bay area. He is among the most creative and thoughtful and opinionated, and hard-headed, columnists you’ll ever read. And funny. And one of the good guys. Don’t ever miss his columns, interviews and stories on garysheltonsports.com. Gary has agreed to be an occasional contributor to woodypaige.com.)