Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

December 27, 2018 at 1:43 am.

Bucs simply playing out the string

It’s hard to find two teams with more disappointing seasons than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons.

Tampa Bay is 5-9 and head coach Dirk Koetter knows his job is in jeopardy. The Falcons are 6-9, having won two games in a row but still far from achieving their expectations.

Sunday’s season finale could determine which team will finish in the cellar of the NFC South. But neither team was much of a challenge to the New Orleans Saints, who hold the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

It appears there will be changes to both teams following this game.

Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is probably safe, but he will have to make adjustments to his coaching staff.

Meanwhile, Koetter is only 19-28 and his future with the Bucs is in doubt along with general manager Jason Licht.

Koetter has made plenty of mistakes since he went 9-7 in his first year as the Bucs head coach in 2016.

He stuck too long with defensive coordinator Mike Smith. He probably should not have benched quarterback Jameis Winston after three games.

“You can’t play the what-if game,” Koetter said. “Asked and answered. I don’t play the what-if game ever because it doesn’t do any good. You can’t change what’s already done.”

Mark Duffner managed to turn the Bucs defense around the second half of the season. The Bucs were allowing 34.6 points per game before he took over. They have allowed 25.7 since.

Duffner, 65, has coached football for more than four decades, most of it in the NFL. He knows when you lose, there will be changes.

“It’s what makes the business tough, but you kind of know it going in,” Duffner said. “I think your focus is always one game at a time. That’s what it is. It’s one week at a time and one year at a time. You focus in on that and that’s what this business promotes in terms of how things go.”

Duffner, who coached on the same staff in Jacksonville with Koetter, says he’s still confident the Bucs head coach is the right man for the job.

“I think he’s done an excellent job with leadership,” Duffner said. “His teams continue to play hard. You know, he hasn’t missed a beat in terms of preparation and the focus that he has set for the team each and every day. I feel very confident in his leadership as the head coach of this team.”

It sounds cliche and should be unnecessary, but Duffner said he reminded his players that they are expected to play all 16 games as hard as possible.

“We’ve talked about it,” Duffner said. “Every single week these guys have responded in terms of their effort and their focus. We expect no difference today from all of us. We’re all expected to have focus and energy. We talked to them about signing their name to their work. So that’s what we’re all looking to do.”

The Bucs most likely will keep Winston, who has now lost his last 12 starts on the road. His fifth-year option of $20.1 million is guaranteed only against injury.

The bigger question is who will be ultimately making that decision. Furthermore, who will coach Winston in 2019?

Even if the Bucs win Sunday, improving by one win from 5-11 to 6-10 likely won’t be enough to save Koetter.

Changes are coming. For both teams.

“I think you recognize it can be a weird feeling and more than anything, we want to talk about it,” Duffner said. “Those feelings are real and we want to make sure we know that but at the same time, the players deserve every bit of the energy and the teaching and the juice we can provide. That’s our pact to them.”

SERIES HISTORY: 51st regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 26-24. Atlanta swept the series in 2017 and won earlier this year at home 34-29 in the first start of the season by Jameis Winston.