Bucs GM on retaining coaches: 'Sometimes the worst decision is to move on'

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tennessee Titans fired Mike Mularkey after going 9-7 in back-to-back seasons. The same for Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell. Jack Del Rio was axed by the Oakland Raiders after going 6-10 one year removed from finishing 12-4.

But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished 5-11 in 2017, and have historically kept coaches on a very short leash, chose to hold on to head coach Dirk Koetter and retain all of his assistants, a move that general manager Jason Licht felt was the right call for multiple reasons, continuity being one.

"I would say this -- even before I arrived here, I had heard that there had been changes made after two years. We hired Dirk, we believed in Dirk, I really believed in Dirk, and we believe that continuity is important," Licht said to ESPN. "I don't want the 2016 season to get lost, where we showed a lot of gains and we went on a run there and were knocking on the door there at the very end -- I don't want that to get lost after one year where a lot of things didn't go right."

The Bucs went 9-7 in 2016 in Koetter's first year as an NFL head coach. Despite a rocky first half of the season on defense, the Bucs finished first in the league on third down and had the third-most takeaways in the league under defensive coordinator Mike Smith.

But things unraveled in 2017. They didn't get a bye week because of Hurricane Irma. There was the injury to the throwing shoulder of quarterback Jameis Winston. Doug Martin averaged just 2.9 yards a carry. Defensive end Noah Spence, who was expected to have a breakout season, wound up on injured reserve after suffering his fourth shoulder dislocation in a year. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves also regressed.

An injury to starting quarterback Andrew Luck didn't stop the Indianapolis Colts from firing Chuck Pagano after the Colts went 4-12. Injuries to Carson Wentz and Teddy Bridgewater didn't keep the Philadelphia Eagles or Minnesota Vikings, respectively, from reaching the NFC Championship Game this season, with the Eagles headed to the Super Bowl.

Licht emphasized that he doesn't believe in making excuses. But he felt that some of the circumstances surrounding the team, combined with the fact that they were one year removed from their best record since 2010, were enough to warrant keeping Koetter and his staff.

Licht also believes that because the Bucs kept it close in several games that they aren't as far away as people might think. They lost seven games by seven points or fewer. Five were by three points or fewer, or in overtime. The four blowout losses -- Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans and Minnesota -- came against teams that won at least one game in the postseason.

"I said before that I don't believe that you forget how to coach," Licht said. "And let's remember that a year ago, we were being lauded for keeping Mike Smith, who has been a head coach and has also been a very successful coordinator in this league and was the defensive coordinator of a defense that had one of the more historic turnarounds in 2016. Sometimes the worst decision is to move on."

Teams throughout the league do believe in second chances and have been rewarded for giving them. The New Orleans Saints went 7-9 for three consecutive years after four-straight postseason appearances and a Super Bowl title. Head coach Sean Payton kept his job while sweeping changes were made throughout the organization. Payton led the Saint to an 11-5 record in 2017.

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has been on the hot seat multiple times, including after going 13-19 his first two seasons, but the Panthers then reached the postseason three straight years, including the Super Bowl in 2015.

The jury is still out on Todd Bowles, who went 10-6 in his first season as head coach of the New York Jets in 2015. The Jets finished 5-11 in both 2016 and 2017, with Bowles getting a two-year extension. A big reason why he got to return is because players showed legitimate improvement under him and continued fighting down the stretch. They lost five games by seven points or fewer.

"I truly believe that this organization is on the verge of great things. I truly believe that," Licht said. "We are working very hard right now to make some changes -- there will be additions obviously, there will be subtractions on this team -- but we will deliver the type of team that this town will be proud to support. We're remaining positive. We're very positive and looking forward to next year. It can't start soon enough for me."