Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter has made some bizarre decisions in his first year at the helm of the Bucs ship. Few were more bizarre or as potentially damaging as the decision he made to bench Doug Martin for the biggest game of the year last Saturday in New Orleans.
It’s one thing to ignore your clock management coach’s cries to use a timeout late in a close game as he did against the Rams, or to create an opponent’s field-goal opportunity by denying a penalty that would have created a third-and-22 situation instead as he did against the Falcons.
Make decisions like that and you can lose the game, which the Bucs did on both occasions. Make a decision like the one he made Saturday to deactivate Martin and you could lose the player, maybe even the entire locker room.
More than just a two-time Pro Bowler, Martin is one of the most popular and respected players on the team, a player Koetter strongly defended a week earlier when the subject of his recent struggles came up, saying Martin “is fine’’ and “running hard.’’
“We’ve got to give him more lanes,” Koetter said then. “He’s been running into some rough looks, some unblocked guys. There’s nothing wrong with Doug Martin. People are complaining about Doug Martin; there’s nothing wrong with Doug Martin. We’ve got to play better around him.”
That suggested Martin’s struggles this year (he’s averaging just 2.9 yards per carry) have been the result of something more or less out of his control, such as poor blocking up front from the offensive line, on the periphery by secondary blockers or possibly even a lack of opportunity.
Yet it was Martin who was inactive in Saturday’s critical game at New Orleans and replaced as the starter by Rodgers, who has indeed been the Bucs most effective back this year. He was averaging 4.4 yards per carry prior to facing the Saints but was benched himself the week before against the Cowboys.
In both cases undrafted rookie Peyton Barber remained active. Are we to believe that Barber’s 16 special teams snaps are more important to the Bucs’ cause than any snap Martin might have taken in a must-win game? Martin is more than a ball carrier after all.
In recent weeks he’s become more a part of the team’s passing game, particularly on screen passes, and he’s been lauded by Koetter himself for the job he’s done in pass protection, regularly throwing the key block that unleashes a big passing play.
All of that suggests something else may have been at play here. Perhaps Martin showed up late for practice last week, fell asleep in a team meeting didn’t practice as hard as Koetter wanted. We have no idea, of course, because the Bucs insist that wasn’t the case, that this move was made on merit.
That’s why it’s so bizarre. Though they are similar backs, the Bucs could have easily dressed both Martin and Rodgers and still started Rodgers. That might have even thrown the Saints for a bit of a loop. And given Martin’s struggles, no one could have argued with such a move.
As it is, Koetter has now coached himself into a corner. He said he went with Rodgers because he believed Rodgers gave his team the best chance to win. It’s hard to see that opinion changing before the last game of the season, which is now almost meaningless for the playoffs because the Bucs lost Saturday.
To change now would be an admission by Koetter that he took a chance that didn’t pay off, played a hunch in the most important game of the season, and lost. On the other hand, it would also be a nod to Martin that he made a mistake and should have dressed him for the game.
As bizarre as it might be for Koetter to admit all that, it might beat the alternative. The Bucs playoff hopes are all but lost, in part because of the some of the bizarre decisions Koetter has made this year. The last thing Koetter needs to do now is lose his players.