TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter was asked on Monday why quarterback Jameis Winston isn’t starting and Ryan Fitzpatrick is, especially when the organization needs to figure out what it has in Winston going into his fifth year.
“I understand that. I understand that,” Koetter said. “But we’re right in there. It’s just barely past the halfway point in the season and there’s a lot of football to be played. … I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we can turn this thing and get on a little bit of a win streak. We’ve got to play better football more consistently across the board. Our defense took a nice step in that direction [on Sunday]. I still think if we can put it together on both sides of the ball we’ll be all right.”
The first question to ask is, at 3-6, is a turnaround possible?
Mathematically? Yes. But realistically? It doesn’t look like it.
In the Super Bowl era, five teams had six losses or more after nine games and made the playoffs — all five were 3-6, according to research by ESPN Statistics & Information.
The Bucs face the New York Giants (2-7) on the road this week, followed by the San Francisco 49ers (2-8) at home. Winning those two games would make Tampa Bay 5-6 heading into home games against the Carolina Panthers (6-3) and New Orleans Saints (8-1) — the top two teams in the NFC South.
The Bucs then travel to play the Baltimore Ravens (4-5), who rank second in the NFL in points allowed per game (17.8). The Bucs have beaten one top-10 team in that category this season — a 27-21 victory against the No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles (20.3) — but scored a combined 13 points against the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins, who are tied for fourth (19.44). The Bucs visit the Dallas Cowboys (No. 3 at 19.0 allowed per game) the following week and close the season against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Panthers (6-3) and Minnesota Vikings (5-3-1) lead the NFC wild-card standings. The Bucs are 12th. Four of the Panthers’ final seven opponents (the Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns and Bucs) are a combined 13-23-1, making it very difficult to catch Carolina. The Vikings’ schedule is tougher, with two games against the Bears remaining, along with games against the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots.
Maybe if the Bucs played in the NFC East, with three teams below .500, this would be possible, but their greatest hurdle is their own division, where teams are averaging 30 points a game.
Since joining the NFC South in 2002, the Bucs have only swept the Saints twice — in 2005 and 2007. They’ve gone 3-0 in their final three divisional games just once — in 2005, when they finished 5-1 in the division. They’ve also swept their final three divisional games at home just once — in 2008 — according to ESPN Statistics & Information data. And in the NFC South, the Bucs have the hardest remaining schedule according to FPI (eighth).
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The next question: Does Koetter really believe the Bucs are still in this or is it more about saving his job? That’s hard to say, because one could argue Koetter’s job is tied to Winston. Even though he wasn’t the head coach who drafted the QB, Koetter was brought in to develop Winston. You also could point to Koetter taking over playcalling duties for the Redskins game as a need to reassert control after offensive coordinator Todd Monken had done it all season.
“I just felt like the type of game it was going to be, based on Washington’s offense,” Koetter said, “I thought that we needed to try to control the clock a little bit more and try to give our defense a little bit of time — maybe less time on the field that maybe we need to try to run it a little more and use our RPOs a little bit more.”
With Monken this season, the Bucs averaged 31:08 in time of possession per game — eighth most in the league. With Koetter calling plays Sunday, they had the ball for 31:12. Last season, the Bucs averaged 29:43 minutes, but it’s not a true apples-to-apples comparison. Though Monken might like to throw the ball more on first down, it didn’t offer a tangible difference.
The third question: Koetter said he believes Fitzpatrick truly gives Tampa Bay the best chance to win, but is it a compelling enough case to keep Winston benched for the remainder of the season with a $20.9 million fifth-year option looming?
Winston’s four-interception performance against the Cincinnati Bengals was horrible. He was OK against the Browns. He did throw four touchdowns and two interceptions against the Falcons in Week 6.
But the big thing has been turnovers, and though turnovers have been an issue for both quarterbacks, Winston’s done it more, throwing six touchdowns and 10 interceptions as compared to Fitzpatrick’s 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Koetter also acknowledged that, yes, having the same quarterback each week is preferable.
“You could make a case for that,” Koetter said. “I wouldn’t be worried about consistency if I didn’t think it also gives us the best chance [to win], but you could make a case for that.”