Which player, coach or front-office executive in the NFC South is on the hottest seat this season? Our roundtable reporters give their picks.
Vaughn McClure, Atlanta Falcons reporter: Jameis Winston, no question about it. The Tampa Bay quarterback’s off-the-field issues continue to accumulate following the problems he had while in college at Florida State. Winston was the first overall pick in the the 2015 draft, so expectations were extremely high from the outset. His career record is 18-27, he has suffered a setback with a shoulder injury, and he has yet to make the postseason. Winston has two years and $24,813,922 left on his contract, including next season’s fifth-year option at $20,922,000. And by the way, Winston’s troubles put Bucs coach Dirk Koetter on the hot seat, too.
David Newton, Carolina Panthers reporter: I was torn here between Koetter and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. This is a big year for Newton with a new offensive coordinator and system. If he doesn’t show improvement after consecutive down years, there will be a lot of questions about his future. But you don’t typically fire players. You do fire coaches. And the Bucs won’t be very patient with Koetter, whose team grossly underperformed last season after showing so much promise and barely missing the playoffs in 2016. If Tampa Bay doesn’t make the playoffs — again — look for a change.
Mike Triplett, New Orleans Saints reporter: Koetter and GM Jason Licht, Buccaneers. This is a fairly obvious choice in a division where Tampa Bay was the only team to miss the playoffs last season — especially considering how high the expectations were for the Bucs as one of the league’s rising young teams before they finished 5-11. I appreciate the team’s decision to stay patient with both guys despite last year’s flop. The Bucs were plagued by injuries and they did go 9-7 in Koetter’s first year on the job in 2016 (their first winning record since 2010). Plus, patience has paid off in the NFC South, where the Panthers stuck by Ron Rivera after a 13-19 start over his first two seasons (2011-2012) and the Saints stuck by Sean Payton after three straight 7-9 seasons (2014-2016). But I think that patience will run out if Tampa Bay misses the playoffs for the 11th straight season. I wouldn’t put quarterback Winston in the same boat as Koetter and Licht. But there’s some pressure on him, too, to prove he’s worth a mega-contract before his current deal runs out after the 2019 season.
Jenna Laine, Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter: Three NFC South teams not named the Buccaneers reached the playoffs in 2017, so this falls on the folks in Tampa, who can’t afford to be left in the dust yet again. Koetter went 9-7 his first season in 2016, and even though the Bucs regressed to a 5-11 record in 2017, ownership was still encouraged by the fight they saw from players and the fact that they went 3-7 in one-score games. That’s what saved Koetter’s job. As for Licht, ownership has really liked what he has done in the draft, but the suspension of Winston, whom he drafted first overall despite a sexual assault investigation at Florida State, does hurt his credibility. On HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” Licht said Winston was “the best leader I think I’ve been around.” Licht needs Winston to stay out of the headlines and to remain a Buccaneer. There’s also the possibility that if the Bucs struggle in 2018, defensive coordinator Mike Smith is gone. Koetter could get the benefit of the doubt for not having a starting quarterback for three games, but Smith got an overhauled defensive line and secondary this offseason. Giving up the most passing yards in the league for a third straight year (255.7 yards per game from 2016-2017) and the most yards per game (378.1 in 2017) won’t be acceptable.