TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter made his way around the outside of the locker room to defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, then to linebackers Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David and Kendell Beckwith. He patted them on the back and hugged them, one by one.
It was the first time Koetter, a second-year head coach whose Bucs went 9-7 last year and are just 3-6 this season, had smiled during postgame in well over a month. A five-game losing streak will do that.
Koetter is mostly known for being a straight-shooter. So when a reporter asked him Friday if his players were confident, he volunteered this: "What happens when a team loses is sometimes they are not confident in the coach, or the scheme, or the other side of the ball or their teammates. That’s human nature. That happens in every aspect of life. Do I think there is possibly some of that going on? Yeah, there probably is. The easiest way to fix it is [to] play good team football and get a win.”
They did that Sunday, beating the New York Jets at home, 15-10, a victory punctuated by strong defense that included two takeaways and six sacks, efficient quarterback play from Ryan Fitzpatrick and a steady kicking game from Patrick Murray. It was the first step in trying to regain what has been, thus far, a lost season. It was also an important step for Koetter and the coaching staff to get a grip on the locker room, to renew trust that may have been waning.
Losing a few games on the field is one thing. Losing the support of a locker room? That's completely damning for a head coach, and there's no coming back from it. Players had been adamant that it hadn't happened. But eight total sacks in eight games? Scoring just one offensive touchdown in two games against divisional foes? The costly penalties from the offensive line? The scuffle on the sideline against New Orleans that resulted in a suspension for Mike Evans? None of those things paint a pretty picture.
"It's us as players, man," offensive tackle Demar Dotson said last week. "I think coach is doing a good job of putting us in position to be successful, but it's us that have to go play, and we're the ones not doing it. Unfortunately when the s--- goes downhill, it starts at the top. But it's not the coaches, man."
When McCoy was asked after the Saints game if he was concerned about Koetter's job status, he said, "We're ain't worried about that. We're gonna keep playing. That's what people say. We're not worried about that."
But the looks on faces throughout the building this week told a different story. Coaches and front office members know that they're fighting for their jobs. Players could feel that too. They'd grown tired of answering the same questions from the media week after week, so much so that they'd hide out during open locker room.
Koetter did try some new things this week. He brought in motivational speaker and former NBA player Jim Brogan, although it was far from Brogan's only visit to One Buc Place. Brogan preached "focus" to players, getting a faster response and trusting their instincts, while Koetter encouraged them to keep "chipping away." Veterans like McCoy kept emphasizing "energy."
Then, Saturday night, David gave a riveting speech about "doing it for the family" and that the only people who could change their situation were in the room already.
There was also an emphasis on "integrity."
"Just keep swinging, keep going, because once you change [who you are], once your integrity folds, and you try to change up what you do, you aren't going to have success," said defensive end Ryan Russell. "Success is in preparation, it's in focus, it's in repetition, going down the path, believing in the defense that we have, believing in what we're doing, believing in the talent that we have in our room."
It all helped. Sunday's win showed that they still believe.
"I don't have nothing to say to the people questioning my coaches and my team," said Alexander, who, like David and McCoy, are captains on defense. "I'm with my team 100 percent. I don't care whoever's talking about our team. I'm going to ride for them regardless."
Beckwith echoed that sentiment.
"He means a lot," Beckwith said of Koetter. "He's definitely a caring guy. This is my first year here, but I can feel that. He always reminds us that we're just one family. It's not about the outside world. It's just all about us. It's all about us in this locker room. No matter what happens, we all stick together. I feel it."