Winston Benched, Fitzpatrick Comeback Falls Just Short For Bucs

Four interceptions send Winston to the sideline

While the talk around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so far in the 2018 NFL season mostly hovered around Jameis Winston, the team’s wins and losses were largely not about Winston. He had some good moments and some bad ones, but when the Buccaneers went to Cincinnati on Sunday all the narratives caught up with them. This one, without question, was about Jameis Winston.

Winston had a miserable football game. He struggled to find open receivers, and forced passes that simply weren’t there. In all, he threw four interceptions, not one of which came off of a deflection or while Winston was being hit. The picks bring his season total to ten, tying the league lead despite having missed the first three games and half of the fourth.

The Buccaneers wound up losing 37-34, despite a frantic fourth quarter comeback with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. The backup, who had been so good in season-opening wins over the Saints and Eagles, went 11-15 with 194 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also completed a pass for a critical two-point conversion late to tie the game at 34. The Cincinnati Bengals went on a game-winning drive immediately after, culminating in the field goal that ended the game and sent the Buccaneers to 3-4 on the season.

Fitzpatrick’s performance was enough to create serious questions about the Bucs’ quarterback situation moving forward. Winston has put up yardage numbers, and against Cleveland he led late drives that helped Tampa bay win the game, but his interceptions are piling up. He looks distracted and lost under center. Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, has looked as good as his offensive line allowed him to be this season.

Coach Dirk Koetter did not answer questions about his quarterback situation, other than to remind reporters that he is not obligated to name a starter yet. For Koetter, and for the Buccaneers’ front office that hired him to be the team’s head coach, this situation is more complicated than starting the better passer.

Dirk Koetter was hired during the same offseason that Jameis Winston was drafted. It would be fair, and not much of a reach, to say that Koetter was hired largely to develop Jameis Winston as a passer. It would also be fair to question whether Jameis Winston has developed as a passer at all since he was drafted. The same knocks on him now were true in college: He’s careless with the football and sometimes tries to do too much on a play. Those are flaws that were well-known when Winston was still at Florida State, and they are still true of the signal-caller.

If this is truly it for Jameis Winston, if he has passed or is approaching that point of no return, it’s likely that Dirk Koetter will inevitably go with him. The same is true of general manager Jason Licht. Licht drafted Winston with the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, both on his ability and the assurance that there would not be off-the-field trouble involving women. His ability thus far has been lacking, and less than a year after being drafted Winston was involved in an incident with an Uber Driver that led to his suspension this season. If the Buccaneers are to be in the market for another quarterback soon, it is hard to believe that Jason Licht will be the person doing the shopping.

Knowing all of that, it is not a lock that Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the Buccaneers’ starter moving forward, even though he played so well in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

The Buccaneers defense showed for much of the second half that they can make adjustments and adapt to a game under Mark Duffner. Fitzpatrick’s comeback was made possible by the defense getting some stops late in the game.

That side of the ball remains outmanned from week to week, and there is little that can be done about that at this point. This was evident on the final drive of the game, when Tampa Bay allowed Andy Dalton and the Bengals to get well into field goal range for Randy Bulluck to kick the game-winner and render Fitzpatrick’s comeback to little more than a storyline.

Still, with the Buccaneers’ offense still capable of putting up scores well into the thirties, only so many stops will be needed to win a football game. The biggest difference on defense since the dismissal of Mike Smith is that, as much as the Bucs’ defense is in a bad situation, they are still doing just enough to keep Tampa Bay in the football game.

This is not a story of the Buccaneers’ wheels falling off. With the exception of getting destroyed against Chicago, Tampa Bay has made every game a close one that comes down to the final few possessions. It is still a football team that can win games, and in hindsight they will undoubtedly be kicking themselves over ways that they could have won this one.

All focus might be on the quarterback position, but the undeniably important signal-caller aside, talk of high draft picks will be premature. The Cincinnati Bengals are a good team, 5-3 in a tough AFC North, and the Buccaneers took them down to the final second of the football game. If they play like they have been, Tampa Bay is if nothing else a dangerous opponent that can ruin a promising season or two.

The NFL Trade Deadline is Tuesday afternoon at 4:00. This is the first chance the Buccaneers will have to make a decision on their starting quarterback moving forward, but it is very much unlikely that they will do so.

With the Jacksonville Jaguars sorely in need of a passer, Tampa Bay could theoretically deal Ryan Fitzpatrick for some manner of draft pick. Theoretically, they could deal Jameis Winston somewhere instead, but that seems far-fetched to say the least.

The only certainty is that quarterback talk will dominate Buccaneers discussion moving forward. Winston’s future, both immediate and long-term, is now more in doubt than ever as his play on field deteriorates.

Up Next for Bucs

The Buccaneers play their first game against the Carolina Panthers this season next Sunday at 1:00. The Panthers, flying high at 5-2, are coming off wins against the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.