Lessons From Atlanta

January 24th, 2018


Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith have been here before. It’s the sunken place.

It’s the place where your football team doesn’t flex its muscles nearly enough to win the line of scrimmage.

Four years ago, Smith began hearing rumblings that his Falcons weren’t tough enough. After averaging 12 wins from 2010-12, Atlanta suffered through a 4-12 season with Smith as head coach and Koetter overseeing the offense.

The 2013 Falcons finished last in the league in rushing and next-to-last in rush defense, generating questions about the team’s physicality.

A few days after Smith defended his players, Falcons owner Arthur Blank brandished a big stick at the podium.

“I’m going to give you a little different answer than Smitty gave you last week,” Blank said. “He was asked the question about how tough our team was. And I read his answer. And in many ways, I would agree with it. But in some ways, I would not agree with it. I think the nature of the game is that it’s a physically violent game.

“I think, at the end of the day, if I asked you to give me a brief definition of what toughness is, you might say to me it’s how you control the line of scrimmage. Can you run the ball? Can you stop the run? … And I don’t think we did either one of those things very well this year. So I would say, if you looked at toughness from that perspective, I don’t think we were as tough as we needed to be.”

The Falcons went 6-10 the following season, ranking 24th in rushing offense and 21st in rushing defense. Smith was shown the door and Koetter moved on to Tampa Bay.

Extended Issue

Now, it’s Koetter who has to answer questions about his team’s toughness.

You can’t put this all on Koetter and Jason Licht. Subpar play in the trenches has haunted this franchise for a decade, since the last time the Bucs made the playoffs.

Since 2008, the Bucs have ranked 15th or worse in rushing offense eight times. The same sad numbers hold true when it comes to stopping the run — 15th or worse eight times in the past 10 years.

The Bucs have paid a heavy price for ignoring the NFL maxim that you win or lose in the trenches.

In the past 10 drafts, Tampa Bay has used only three premium draft picks (top three rounds) on offensive linemen. In that same span, only six defensive linemen were selected out of 30 premium picks.

Front And Center

When Dan Quinn replaced Smith in Atlanta, the Falcons got tough, drafting Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Takkarist McKinley, Keanu Neal and Deion Jones in the past three years. Those guys are nasty. Those guys are mean.

Once Blank spoke, the personnel department listened.

“It doesn’t mean we want players that are going to end up in different sections of the newspaper other than the sports section,” Blank said. “But I do think we want players that have the capacity to be tough; as tough as they need to be, to play right up to the line, to the edge of the line, and to have coaches that can coach them that way as well.”

I’m not saying the Bucs have to pluck a lineman with the No. 7 pick, but this entire offseason has to be dedicated to the trenches. The men up front have to be front and center when it comes to free agency and the draft.

When times got tough, the Falcons craved toughness. The Bucs ought to do the same.

Ira Kaufman is the most revered sports personality and writer in town. He has hung his hat at JoeBucsFan.com world headquarters since July 2016. Tampa Bay’s only Pro Football Hall of Fame voter, Ira busts out columns here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and his award winning podcasts fire Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can also hear Ira every Wednesday on SiriusXM Mad Dog Radio at 5 p.m., and see him Mondays and Fridays at 10:30 p.m. on Spectrum Sports 360.

27 Responses to “Lessons From Atlanta”

  1. Rrsrq Says:

    Perfectly said, Ira, perfectly said, are the Glazers, Licht and Dirk willing to reevaluate their commitment to be tough

  2. LakeLand Says:

    The Bucs don’t want ” tough” players, they want Pretty Boys, Dunkineers, #WeaponsForWinston etc

  3. Lunchbox Says:

    Atlanta suffered through a 4-12 season with Smith as head coach and Koetter overseeing the offense.
    Indeed they have been here before. Atlanta learned their lesson. Has our coaching staff?
    I’m all for almost sole focus on the lines, with some focus on the defensive backfield. Beefing up the offensive line (Nelson, for example) would make our existing running game AND passing game better. Focus on the lines gentlemen.

  4. Costa Rica John Says:

    Good article. I totally agree. We should draft lineman until we get the right guys to get the job done. I want to know that when the Bucs are on offense and it’s third and a yard to go we can hand it off and get that yard 99 times out of 100. Same for the defense I want to see that stop 99 out of 100 times. Draft some beasts!!!!!

  5. LakeLand Says:

    Why did the Bucs get rid of Dashon Goldson? Why was DJ Swearinger a backup to Major Wright and then released? Why was big nasty Donald Penn shipped out? Why was Legarrette Blount benched for Doug Martin then shipped out? Why was Michael Bennett shipped out? So many questions for this soft,toilet tissue team.

  6. BucEmUp Says:

    Here’s the real.difference, you will never see bucs ownership at any podium talking specifically how to improve the team. Ever.

  7. Doctor Stroud Says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Ira! We were told that the Bucs were getting “tough” in the trenches when they acquired Sweezy, Baker, and Ayers. Yet, I don’t blame the players. I blame the long line of coaches who are either unable or unwilling to push the players (yes, even Coach “toes on the line” Schiano). How many times have we heard about Coach Koetter’s vet-friendly training camp regimen and practices, even for the rookies? No wonder the Bucs players were firmly behind him when rumors swirled that he was going to get fired. And to think that the Stick Carriers gave Coach Koetter a picture of him as the Godfather?!

    You can have a tough camp without pushing the players to the brink of heat stroke. I saw this firsthand in Jacksonville where the Bucs and Jaguars conducted joint practices. The Jags were stressing the fundamentals; meanwhile, the Bucs had their helmets off and were going through “mental reps”, a phrase that injured players on the sidelines usually invoke. At the time, I thought that the Bucs were practicing smarter because they weren’t wearing themselves out before the season. In hindsight, however, the Jags adopted the better approach. That team took a huge leap forward. They abandoned the Gus Bradley-“player’s coach” method in favor of the tough, no nonsense approach adopted by Doug Marrone (with a little help from Tom Coughlin). Someone please tell the Bucs players that living in Florida does not mean that they are on vacation and to save that attitude for the Pro Bowl. #PaidFloridaVacation

  8. LakeLand Says:

    Arthur Blank is a hands on owner. If the falcons finish 5-11, Arthur Blank will clean house.

  9. Rod Munch Says:

    LakeLand – How many Super Bowls has Atlanta won?

    Oh right…

  10. Rod Munch Says:

    LakeLand – As for your question about why the Bucs released those players you listed… it was because the Bucs keep firing their head coach.

    I’m OK with Dirk coming back if the Bucs couldn’t get a Gruden, or pull of a trade for Tomlin (a fantasy scenario I made up), but come on, blaming roster turnover on the owners? That’s silly. When new coaches come in they always want their guys and ship other guys out. If you want stability in the roster, then you want stability in the coaches. I’m not a huge Dirk fan but I said two years ago when Dirk got hired that the same people calling for Lovie’s head and celebrating him getting fired would be the same people 2 years later calling for Dirk’s head – and I was right. From what you’ve said you said the same thing as well. Anyways Lovie shouldn’t have been fired and if that had not happened and Dirk was able to stick to just being the OC the team would be in a better position today. Also Lovie, unlike Mike Smith, actually knew defense, and with less talent than Mike Smith has got a top 10 performance out of a poor unit that finished 31st under Schiano and 32nd under Mike Smith.

  11. LakeLand Says:

    They have been to the playoffs 6 times in the past 10 seasons. The Bucs have zero appearances and are content.

  12. LakeLand Says:

    The Falcons give their fans someting to be excited about. Even if they don’t win a Super Bowl. It’s the excitement of the regular season, and the thrill of postseason. The only thing the Bucs give their fans are Ulcers, Hangovers and frustration.

  13. LakeLand Says:


  14. denjoe Says:

    Great article!

  15. gambelero Says:

    Well crafted, from the lead to the conclusion.

  16. Not there yet Says:

    Uuummm no Dashon Goldson was trash and the guy was good for two things, getting fined and giving up penalties for illegal his at crucial times in a game but I do believe where things went won’t for licht is when he got here they allowed Lovie to make sweeping changes to the roster without forest seeing what kind of players he should keep

    To address the article Mr Ira the biggest issue I see with this article is the fact that the head coach and defensive coordinator have been here before, the fact that it’s not the first time their team had been called soft yet here they are in charge of another team and they are running it the exact way they did when it got them both fired. So what do I expect? I don’t even expect them to go 6-10 but I do expect them to go on and get fired and licht will be out the door with them. A violent sport and every time your in control your teams are called soft umm yeah this game has passed you by for the simple fact that they appear like Lovie to be too stubborn to evolve. The next regime to take over I suspect will have a damn good roster and an easy time winning right off the bat

  17. Cover Deuce Says:

    It’ll be interesting to see what happens this offseason, because corner is a potentially desperate situation as well. I agree that this team needs to prioritize the lines, but without Brent Grimes this group of corners is scarily reminiscent of Schiano’s fearsome foursome.

  18. tickrdr Says:

    @Mr. Rod Munch:
    All of your stats comparing the relative performance of the Bucs’ defense over the last six years are absolutely correct when looking at total YARDS allowed. That is certainly one way to look at those relative rankings, however we all know that POINTS SCORED and POINTS ALLOWED determine the outcome of the game.

    So, for the DEFENSE with DK and MS:
    2017 32nd in yards allowed, but 22nd in points allowed ( 23.9 ppg)
    2016 23rd in points allowed, but 15th in points allowed (23.1 ppg)
    even though the offense was 24th(2016) and 26th(2017) in turnovers.

    For the DEFENSE of Lovie Smith:
    2015 10th in yards allowed, but 26th in points allowed (26.1 ppg)
    2014 25th in yards allowed, and 25th in points allowed (25.6 ppg)

    Even Greg Schiano’s DEFENSE was better than Lovie’s defense:
    2013 17th in yards allowed, and 21st in points allowed (24.3 ppg)
    2012 29th in yards allowed, but 23rd in points allowed (24.6 ppg)

    Mike Smith and his defense gave up a lot of yards, but they gave up fewer points per game than any of their recent predecessors. In fact, that defense was the principal reason for a five-game winning streak in 2016, and our eventual overall record of 9-7! They gave up a lot of yards, but must have toughened eventually, since those yards didn’t always lead to giving up the most POINTS.


  19. tickrdr Says:

    2016 should read 23rd in yards allowed, but 15th in points allowed.


  20. Guzzie Says:

    It’s pretty obvious no one in Bucs management reads Joesbucsfan.com, I’ve only been frequenting this site the past 3 years, and it’s comical how clueless this regime is, I mean you’d figure these clowns would at least try to take advice from knowledgeable people ala Ira, or at least learn from past mistakes, VJax was old, expensive and coming off a horrible year and we pay him $10 mil to do nothing again then the next year we get # weaponsforWinston, Drug Martin old, expensive and horrible year plus drug suspension, let’s start him 11 games, no need to even mention our pass rush, CBs, and OL, it’s ridiculous

  21. Defense Rules Says:

    Ira, that was a FANTASTIC piece. I’d never heard that quote from Arthur Blank before, but I love it … spot on. I think I see where you’re going with your line “You can’t put this all on Koetter and Jason Licht” and I grant that many others played a BIG role in getting us into this mess. BUT … they’ve done far too little to solve the ‘trenches’ problem. Especially Jason Licht; after all, he IS responsible for stocking this team with players, and has been now for 4 years.

    Like you said … “In the past 10 drafts, Tampa Bay has used only three premium draft picks (top three rounds) on offensive linemen. In that same span, only six defensive linemen were selected out of 30 premium picks.” Yes the Bucs have paid a very heavy price for ignoring the trenches. Maybe you can only ‘coach up’ mediocre players so far? Way past time to fix the trenches Jason.

  22. Mike Johnson Says:

    Like I’ve been sayin all year ..Arthur Blanks let Smitty and Koetter go for good reason. We..the Bucs happily picked up their rejects. These coaches ain’t takin TB nowheres but back to the celler again where its nice, cozy and warm. Mike Smith will once again retire to his perch in the sky with his binoculars exlaming, We got to get better. Poor Bucs!

  23. Joel Says:

    I guess you don’t watch many Falcons games Joe. Their team isn’t mean. Or nasty. They’re soft. A lot of the fans up here in Atlanta would agree with you.

  24. Joel Says:

    This article is a joke. The Falcons a tough team? Hahaha!

    They went 7-0 against non playoff teams this year.

    3-6 against playoff teams. They’re nothing special, Ira.

    They beat crappy teams and barely did it. Bucs were in both games. Bears should’ve beaten them. Same with Lions and Jets.

    Tough and nasty? Hahahahahaha!!!

    Did you even see what Vic Beasley did this year?

    10-6 was a mirage.

  25. Pickgrin Says:

    DR – your bias is showing.

    The trenches mess that Ira is describing is largely due to DOM being such a terrible GM that the repercussions of his ineptitude are still being felt and rectified 4 years later.

    Dom didn’t draft any Oline players in FIVE YEARS. How is that even possible when OLine makes up 20% of your entire roster???

    Licht drafted 5 Oline players in 4 years – netted 3 starters and the primary swing tackle back-up.

    Dom drafted 10 DL players in 5 years – half of those were 1st and 2nd rounders and 8 of the 10 were from rds 1>4. Netted 3 players – 1 starter(GMC) and 2 back ups(Akeem Spence and Gholston).

    Licht has drafted 2 Dline players in 4 years – netted 1 starter (when healthy) and 1 back up (7th rounder).

    GM Jason Licht has been busy trying to draft what he considers the best of what each draft gives him – while trying to fill all the holes that he inherited from Dom and Bruce Allen. 3/4 or more of our starting players did not have NFL starting talent when Licht 1st walked through the door (thus 2-14).

    I get the criticism that Licht hasn’t spent enough resources on the Dline because its been a “need” ever since he got here.

    The reality though is that there were “needs” all over the field and the only real opportunity Jason has had in retrospect to draft a good DL player early without more obviously talented players on the board was in 2016 when he opted for another dire need at the time (CB) instead of Rankins (or Tunsil) who should have been the pick.

    I’m pretty sure it was the Gazers who said NO to paying $60M for 31 year old Calais Campbell and I understand why they didn’t want to take that level of monetary risk on a player who is quickly approaching his expiration date.

  26. StPeteBucsFan Says:


    Good post but be careful bringing facts and nuance to this blog. Joe can appreciate it but about half the posters just want to blame this mess on the coaches or GM and move on.

    I don’t know how long bad drafts can ruin your team…guess it depends on how many bad drafts.

    But I see two situations…Chucky comes here we give up 2 first rounders and 2 second rounders or 4 of those premium picks IRA talks about. Mix in some bad picks with the few choices we had and you have a recipe for a decade of struggle. IMHO I believe we are finally getting ready to improve.

    JJ…yeah he’s the best WR in the league and the Falcons are happy with him now but those FIVE draft picks were sorely missed causing the Falcons to nose dive for a few years.

    Bad picks of course are not good….but having NO picks is even worse! This is why I go nucking futs when posters want us to trade picks to move up. That’s the wrong direction. Trading down and picking up more picks makes more sense. But I think Nelson is a generational talent so I wouldn’t mind grabbing him.

  27. Pickgrin Says:

    We are far enough away now from the Bruce Allen years that his horrid drafting is no longer really effecting us. That was not the case when Licht 1st got here though. The 10 year run of really bad drafting that the Allen and Dominik regimes imposed upon us left this Buccaneers team in shambles talent wise.

    In 4 years – Licht has assembled more young talent (26 and under) than this franchise has EVER fielded. No one can truthfully deny that statement.

    Yet too many who comment here bitch and moan about what the GM hasn’t accomplished yet – and thus equate that to Licht doing a bad job when he is in fact doing a very good job. Not perfect – but very good.

    DL has not yet been addressed in the draft aside from Spence who will be a good player if he can get his injury situation resolved. RB has not been addressed yet aside from Sims in the 3rd rd four drafts ago and a stab in the dark at McPlaybook in the 5th rd last year. Oline has been somewhat addressed but needs a couple more solid additions. Ditto for DBs.

    WE have our QB!!! That’s huge! We have a top 5 in the NFL group of WRs (Evans, DJax, Godwin, Hump). We have the best TE group in the league (Howard. Brate, Auclair ) We have a top 3 in the NFL (perhaps even #1) group of LBs.

    4 position groups are fixed – QB, WR, TE and LB

    2 position groups are partially fixed and need bolstering – OL and DBs

    2 position groups need fixing – DL and RB. The later can be accomplished with one good acquisition.

    DL will receive 4-5 draft selections over the next 2 years. If Licht hits on 2-3 of them (which his drafting record says is a likelihood) then we will be in pretty good shape.

    Ditch Swaggy and Ward. Cut Gholston (unless he’s willing to re-negotiate for 1/2 his current deal). Retain Ayers for 1 year unless you hit a Dline Yatzee in the draft. Re-sign McDonald and Grimes as 1-2 year bridge players.

    Find 1 other CB, 1 OG and 1 RB in free agency (all of which will be available).

    Draft Chubb or Nelson in Rd 1. RB in rd 2 – spend 3 of the next 5 picks on DL and be on the lookout to draft good safety, CB or Return specialist prospects if the right opportunity presents itself.