Sunday was the day you didn’t think would come. It was the day you saw the end.
You know the exact moment: 3:27 p.m., when Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced Jameis Winston.
Winston was awful. Four interceptions. Four bad interceptions. So bad that it looked as if he was throwing passes in the dark.
During one stretch in the third quarter, he threw two interceptions in three minutes, the second of which the Bengals returned for a touchdown. Down 34-16, coach Dirk Koetter had to make a change. He had to make a change because nothing had changed.
Before Tampa Bay drafted Winston in 2015, scouts identified his decision-making as a potential liability. They’ve been proven right. Since Winston entered the NFL, he has thrown multiple interceptions in 16 games, more than any other quarterback. He has had four such games this season. His 6.8 percent interception rate is more than double his career rate.
When Fitzpatrick entered the game late in the third quarter, it was as if someone had turned the lights on so that the Bucs could see the defenders wearing black jerseys. That’s more than a feeling. The results prove it. Fitzpatrick dropped back to pass 20 times. He didn’t lose a single yard or commit a single turnover (though the Bengals did drop a potential interception). He did the improbable and rallied Tampa Bay to a 34-34 tie. Fitzmagic? No. Execution. The Bucs had a quarterback who knew what he was doing.
Forty-nine games into Winston’s career, it seems as if Tampa Bay can’t win with him. The Bucs are 19-30. More troubling: Their win percentage is trending in the wrong direction. They’ve lost 12 of the past 14 games in which Winston has played. And the two games they won? They won despite him, not because of him.
Is Winston 100 percent to blame for those losses? Of course not. Blame the defense. Blame the offensive line. Blame the wind. Blame the ugly jerseys. Sure, he has gained a lot of passing yards. They don’t mean much, though, when you’re giving the ball to the other team, which, by the way, Winston has been and at an alarming rate. In that 14-game span, he has thrown 19 touchdowns but committed 26 turnovers. That’s not franchise quarterback material.
The bottom line: Winston isn’t helping. For years, defenses have been sitting back and waiting for him to make mistakes. I’m reminded of cornerback Aqib Talib’s response to a question I asked him after he intercepted Winston twice in a Broncos win over the Bucs: “We watched the tape. We saw how confident he was in his arm, so we knew we’d have five to six opportunities today to get our hands on the football.”
That was two years ago.
So, where do the Bucs go from here?
In the near term, you identify the people who pushed hardest for Winston in 2015 and keep them as far away as possible from football operations. Even if their last names start with “G” and end in “lazer.” Actually, especially if their last names start with “G” and end in “lazer.” They created this mess. And when they had an out? They signed up again. “Raise the flags” is Tampa Bay’s slogan. People have been raising them all right. The red ones. For years. Ownership either wasn’t paying attention, didn’t care or thought there was more money to be made by taking this path.
As far as who starts Sunday in Carolina? Koetter already has decided: It’s Fitzpatrick. That’s what I would do, too, if I were in “win now” mode, as the Bucs claimed they were when DeSean Jackson trade rumors surfaced over the weekend. It’s hard to argue with the call. Winston’s not doing anything better than Fitzpatrick. Both have thrown about the same number of passes this season, and Fitzpatrick is averaging about 3 more yards per attempt and has thrown seven more touchdown passes and five fewer interceptions.
Fitzpatrick turns 36 next month, and though a late-career surge like Rich Gannon’s or Kurt Warner’s isn’t probable, is it much more optimistic than expecting Winston to rein in the turnovers?
And if this plan flops? If Fitzpatrick throws three interceptions in a half? Do you bench him and go back to Winston? Probably. What happens when Winston throws three interceptions in a half again? Do you bench him and go back to Fitzpatrick? I don’t know. Talk to the Rays. They invented the “opener.” Maybe they have some ideas about alternating quarterbacks between quarters or even plays. Maybe one is better than the other in, say, early-down situations when the Bucs are trailing by three to eight points.
There is a case for going back to Winston eventually, and it has little to do with the fact that the team already has invested time, energy and money — so much money — in his development. That’d be irrational, like continuing to watch The Matrix Reloaded because you bought the DVD. As the great 20th-century poets Green Day once said, “You can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right.”
The case, as flimsy as it is, goes something like this: You’ve watched football long enough to know where this is headed. What’s the difference between five, six, seven, even eight wins? You’re thinking about 2019, 2020. Winston’s value is at its lowest point since he served a three-game suspension to start the season for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy. The NFL trade deadline is 4 p.m. Tuesday, but there isn’t going to be a long line of suitors for a benched quarterback who is a liability on and off the field. Your best course might be to try to rebuild his value enough to draw some interest in the offseason. It might seem like it in the moment, but he is not a terrible quarterback. He can play at a high level.
The downside to playing Winston? He is due $21 million next season, and that money becomes guaranteed if he suffers an injury. If the Bucs are concerned about that scenario, they might as well keep him on the bench.
And what an end that would be. Winston would finish his Bucs career the same way he started it: by throwing a pick-six.
Storylines (because there are other things to talk about besides Fitzpatrick and Winston)
• One reason why there is chatter about Jackson requesting a trade: His role appears to be diminishing. Despite missing two games, he played 55.8 percent of the offense’s snaps last season. He hasn’t missed a game this season and yet has played 50.5 percent of the snaps. On Sunday, he played 52.3 percent of the snaps. Jackson is due to make $10 million in 2019, but Tampa Bay could release him before the season and not owe him anything.
• Every team except the Bucs has intercepted at least two passes this season. The 2008 Lions set the NFL record for fewest interceptions in a season (four). The Bucs aren’t even on pace for three.
• Tampa Bay has something else in common with that Detroit team: an unsightly opponent passer rating. In 2008, the Lions’ 110.8 rating allowed was an NFL record. Seven seasons later, Saints broke that record, but these Bucs are on track to break it again. They’ve allowed opponents to post a 123.5 rating. A perfect rating is 158.3.
• Tampa Bay allowed 138 rushing yards Sunday, 1 yard short of tying a season high. It’s not as if Cincinnati gained those yards late in the game as it milked the clock. It gained 115 of them in the first half on 16 carries (a 7.2 average).
• First-round draft pick Vita Vea left Sunday’s game early in the fourth quarter, and the Bucs feared he might have suffered a season-ending knee injury. That turned out to not be the case. The team is hopeful he will play against the Panthers.
• Chandler Catanzaro missed his fourth extra point of the season. Does Tampa Bay need a new kicker? No, but maybe it should stop attempting extra points and go for two-point conversions instead.
What I got right
In my game preview, I wondered how the cold weather in Cincinnati would slow the passing offenses. “Look for the kicking games to be a factor,” I wrote. Both kickers missed an extra point, but it was the Bengals’ Randy Bullock who kicked a 44-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. It was the first time in five seasons the Bucs had lost in such a fashion.
What I got wrong
Las Vegas sports books had the point total over-under at 54½ points. I predicted the Bucs and Bengals would go under, but they cleared the line easily — by 16½ points.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.