Playing the 'what if' game with Buccaneers' 5-10 season

Both Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick started for the Bucs, who haven't been to the playoffs since 2007. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wrap up their 2018 season Sunday at home against the Atlanta Falcons. With the Bucs 5-10, this may wind up being Dirk Koetter's last game as the team's head coach.

Hindsight is 20/20, but in a bizarre season in which a starting quarterback was suspended, a backup quarterback delivered an MVP-caliber performance for three weeks, a defensive coordinator was fired and there was yet another change at kicker, it's tough not to wonder: What might have been?

Here's a look at several what-if scenarios that could have dramatically shifted the fate of Koetter and this season.

What if Koetter had fired Mike Smith at the end of the 2017 season?

The Bucs finished 2017 giving up a league-high 378.1 yards per game under Smith. Had Koetter fired him then, he could have promoted then-linebackers coach Mark Duffner, who was named the defensive coordinator after Smith's firing in October. Duffner helped the Bucs go from giving up 440 yards per game in Weeks 1-6 this season to 344.5 in Weeks 7-16. Also in those time frames, the Bucs improved from surrendering an average of 34.6 points per game to giving up only 25.7 points.

If the Bucs wanted to open up their defensive-coordinator search outside the organization, they could have interviewed former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard, who has transformed the Dallas Cowboys’ defense this season as their defensive backs/passing game coordinator.

They could have also gone after Ken Norton, Jr., Jack Del Rio's former defensive coordinator in Oakland who is now the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks, helping them to a ranking just outside the top 10 in points allowed.

Does Koetter regret not making a change sooner? He said previously that firing Smith, who was a mentor, was one of the toughest decisions he ever had to make.

"No, I don't," Koetter said. "If you had it that way, every time we had a bad game, we'd be firing somebody. I don't think that's the answer. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn't. It's easy to second-guess that and we'd be second-guessing every decision. That's not how I look at it."

What if Winston had not been suspended the first three games of the season?

There's no telling what would have happened in Weeks 1 and 2 if Jameis Winston had started instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Could he have gone 2-1 like Fitzpatrick did? The "Fitzmagic" performance in those first two games was unlikely to have been duplicated.

The real issue with the Bucs wasn't those first three games; it was the aftermath -- going 3-9 and losing easily winnable games against the Cincinnati Bengals (now 6-9), New York Giants (5-10) and Washington Redskins (7-8). Had the Bucs won those games, this would be an eight-win football team.

Following up Fitzpatrick's dazzling circus act, Winston struggled, throwing eight interceptions in three games. If Winston had had an entire training camp with his first-string unit, rather than giving the majority of first-team reps to Fitzpatrick, he could have carried over the momentum from the end of last season. In the final five games of the 2017-18 season, he threw nine touchdowns (tied for third in the NFL) and five interceptions, completing 67.2 percent of his passes, fourth-most in the league.

"You can't play the 'what if' game," Koetter said, when asked specifically about Winston. "I do not play the 'what if' game, ever. You can't change what's already done."

Perhaps Koetter could have kept a more watchful eye on Winston, but it goes against his style as a laissez-faire coach -- he expects his guys to be professionals off the field and isn't a babysitter. Winston had to own the consequences of his decisions and actions.

What if Koetter had gone back to Winston sooner?

The Bucs' offense scored just three points, going 0-for-5 in the red zone against the Redskins with Fitzpatrick, yet Koetter trotted him back out onto the field against the Giants the following week. And Winston finished that game under center.

Koetter was doing what he thought put the Bucs in the best position to win games and to save his job. However, he was chasing the Fitzmagic from Weeks 1-3, something Fitzpatrick was never able to replicate at any other point this season. After throwing 11 touchdowns and four interceptions in Weeks 1-3, Fitzpatrick threw six touchdowns and eight interceptions the following five games.

What if the Bucs cut Catanzaro sooner?

The Bucs' inexplicable kicking woes continued in 2018, even without Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk, and that falls on both Koetter and general manager Jason Licht. Chandler Catanzaro, whom they signed this offseason to a three-year, $9.75 million contract ($3.75 million guaranteed), was cut after Week 10.

Catanzaro made 11 of 15 field goal attempts (73.3 percent) -- 31st in the league -- and missed four extra point attempts (he connected on 85.2 percent of his PAT tries). He also missed field goal attempts of 30 and 48 yards in the Bucs' 16-3 loss to the Redskins. He did deliver the game-winning field goal against the Cleveland Browns -- a 59-yarder in overtime -- but his missed kick earlier in the game was the reason the Bucs were in overtime. And Catanzaro had a three-week streak of missing extra point attempts.

Revisiting mistakes is a learning tool

Though Koetter didn't see a point in revisiting those mistakes (at least not publicly), Falcons coach Dan Quinn believes looking back, though painful, can help prevent future mistakes.

"The learning never stops," Quinn said. "It doesn't mean it's always easy. ... You generally can look back and you're always searching for how to improve, and you can second-guess yourself. But at the end of it, you know that heading in, you stuck to the plan, you did what you thought was right and you're hopeful that you'll learn the lessons so that when the next moment like that comes up, you're about to nail it."