TAMPA, Fla. -- It was a tightly-kept secret all week. Who would call plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints? Third-year head coach Dirk Koetter had always called plays, but after a successful preseason under offensive coordinator Todd Monken in which the offense averaged 24 points a game, Koetter quietly extended his role into the regular season.
It couldn't have gone any better. With backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, the Bucs scored 41 offensive points in a 48-40 road win against a divisional opponent. Left tackle Donovan Smith was so excited that he grabbed Monken by the neck of his sweatshirt and shook him wildly before wrapping his arm around him, exclaiming, "Let's go! Let's go!" as they entered the locker room.
Some players didn't even know it was Monken calling the shots because he was upstairs in the coaches' booth.
"He did?" said Mike Evans when asked what he thought of Monken's play-calling debut.
Even Fitzpatrick, who has the coach's voice in his ear during the game, joked he wasn't sure.
"Did he call the plays today? I don't know?" Fitzpatrick said laughing. "I couldn't tell because it was so loud. It looked like Dirk's mouth was moving. But yeah, Todd did a great job."
Tight end O.J. Howard could sense something was different. He felt like Monken takes a few more gambles.
"I love his enthusiasm he has every day at practice," Howard said. "I could almost tell how he was calling the game from the way he was doing it. I'm happy for him. We're looking forward to keeping it up this season."
Was it really that much different though?
"Nah, it was just the flow of the game. I couldn't sense anything different. We were running the same plays we always run," running back Jacquizz Rodgers said.
"I love Monk. I love Dirk," Evans said. "Whoever's calling the plays -- it's the same plays -- it isn't like he's making up new plays. He called a great game -- whoever called it."
Was it playcalling or better execution?
The Bucs didn't unveil anything new. In fact, on DeSean Jackson's 58-yard touchdown on their first offensive series of the game, it was the exact same play called in the first quarter of last year's season finale against the Saints (the Bucs won that game 31-24).
"That's a play that we had game planned," Koetter said. "You have your shot plays -- you have your plays that you've been working on."
Here's how it works: Out of an I-formation with two receivers bunched to his right, the quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back, and the X and Z receivers both appear to be running vertical routes, but instead, utilizing a "hi-lo" concept, the outside receiver breaks outside between the 12 and 15-yard line, while the Z goes up the seam for around 40 yards, and the third receiver runs a crossing route from the opposite side of the formation.
Had Jackson played in the regular-season finale (he was inactive because of an ankle injury), he would have been in the X spot. But Koetter reversed their roles.
"If you remember ... we had Hump as the over-the-top guy and [Evans] as the low guy. Being the really smart coaches as we are, we said, 'Hey, why don't we put the fast guy inside and the other guy outside?' There you have it. Touchdown."
"Monk did a great job [Sunday] calling the plays, but the Buccaneers did a great job of executing the plays," Koetter said. "That was a great example of execution. Monk did a terrific job. We had good rhythm -- we've had good rhythm all through the preseason. That was a game of execution."
Players said they're executing the plays a lot better now than in the past two years. Koetter says he thinks practices are harder, more productive, and the players have been more focused during the walk-throughs and installs.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bucs had zero dropped passes and only two of Fitzpatrick's passes were overthrown or underthrown for incompletions (7 percent of his passes). Last season, the Bucs had 21 dropped passes (1-2 per game) and quarterbacks were off target on 18 percent of their passes, with Fitzpatrick at 18 percent and Winston at 17 percent.
Attention to detail
Wide receiver Freddie Martino, who had Monken as his position coach the past two years before he was promoted to full-time offensive coordinator (he split time in both roles before), says he thinks the whole offense is now benefiting from Monken's watchful eye.
"Monk is real, real good at paying attention to details, like focusing on the small little, little stuff," Martino said. "He pays attention to everything. Like if you have the perfect route, he'll critique it."
For example, when Monken first got to Tampa, he identified that, of all the plays the Bucs ran, the scramble play was most effective. So they made a point of practicing it more, to capitalize on Winston's ability to improvise on broken plays. He also recognized that Evans was "wound too tight" and believed that the drops he experienced his sophomore season were a result of letting his emotions get the best of him, which created a snowball effect.
When he stepped into his new role this season, the rest of the offense began to benefit from his perspective.
He told Winston that he needed to "stop trying so hard" and to "just be Jameis," believing he was forcing things as a leader. Then after almost every training camp practice, he stayed on the field with Howard to work on his technique catching the ball so Howard could truly utilize his size and hands to his advantage. Monken broke down everything, including the position of his fingertips at the point of the catch.
"When you've been doing something for so long, it's easy not to even think about it," Martino said. "Like when the balls coming over here, I'm catching it, but I'm not really thinking about what I'm doing to like really catch the ball -- like getting my shoulder over, turning my body -- just the little minor details."
Not any easy decision
Koetter grew testy in his postgame news conference Sunday when a reporter asked him who called the plays. He wouldn't give an answer, even after the Fox broadcast crew announced that Monken was calling the plays and showed him in the coaches' booth.
To be fair, it is Koetter's offense. He should be given a lot of credit for relinquishing the reigns over an area of strength that got him to where he is today. He was once the Bucs' hotshot offensive coordinator under Lovie Smith before Smith was fired and Koetter was promoted. The front office and ownership felt Koetter's work with the offense and with Winston was too good to possibly let him walk as he was interviewing for head coaching gigs.
But change sometimes isn't a bad thing -- whether it's permanent or temporary. He even agreed.
"We have a pattern and maybe too much so of a pattern. I know there's some people in the league that think we have a pattern," said Koetter, referring to criticism he received last season for having what some around the league felt was "too predictable" of an offense.
And it helps that Koetter has a coach in Monken who isn't driven by ego. Monken has maintained all summer that it's Koetter's show and his role is however he can best help Koetter, whether it's working with receivers, being a second set of eyes or calling plays.
"When I coached with Monk in Jacksonville, you coach with certain guys that after you've worked with them you know if you ever get a chance to work with them again, you're going to jump on it," Koetter said of Monken.
Even when the compliments came rolling in on the job he did against the Saints, Monken quickly pointed to it being a team effort, something players have appreciated because coaches are setting an example on the trust that they've been preaching.
"That's what it's about, man -- team, everybody trusting in each other, the coaches, the players, on down to the training staff and everybody," Rodgers said. "As a team, you've gotta trust in one another and it showed."