CINCINNATI — Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston tore off his helmet, walked quickly back to his sideline and stared blankly at the ground in disbelief. From his own 10-yard line, he’d just tossed his fourth interception against the Cincinnati Bengals — a pick-six to safety Jessie Bates.
Bates said after the game, “I think that kind of put the fork into him.”
He wasn’t kidding.
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It wasn’t just against Cincinnati that Winston struggled. In four games this season with three starts, he has thrown 10 interceptions. He had 11 all last season.
With the team now 3-4 and tied for last in the NFC South nearing the halfway point of the season, coach Dirk Koetter can’t afford to be patient and allow Winston to figure out what’s wrong. The Bucs are two years removed from a 9-7 season and he’s now 17-22 as their head coach — his job is on the line, too.
“This is just for right now. Right now,” Koetter said. “I mean, the most important thing we got is this week. We’ll just have to see how things go. I don’t like switching quarterbacks. That’s not in my makeup to switch quarterbacks. But I just feel like we’ve got to make the switch at this time.”
Neither Koetter nor Bucs players could pinpoint exactly what it was that caused Winston to struggle, why he continued to overthrow receivers or why he failed to see defenders like Bates coming up the field.
They also couldn’t explain why, under the same windy conditions, Fitzpatrick was able to throw two touchdowns and complete a successful two-point conversion, crushing Winston’s 47.7 passing rating with a 154.9. The words “calm” and “steady” were used multiple times to describe Fitzpatrick’s performance.
Koetter already handed his playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Todd Monken before the season began. He then fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith. The next to go is usually the head coach, especially in Tampa, where the past two head coaches — Lovie Smith and Greg Schiano — were fired after just two seasons.
“It’s his third year. He’s got to prove that he should continue to coach,” said right tackle Demar Dotson, the longest-tenured member of the Bucs squad, who is now on his fourth head coach. “I love Dirk … but if we don’t win for Dirk, he’ll probably be without a job.”
A big reason the Bucs promoted Koetter and fired Lovie Smith after the 2015 season was because of Koetter’s work with Winston and the offense. Yes, Smith’s defense struggled, but Smith had a top-10 defense in several statistical categories that season.
General manager Jason Licht and the Glazer family were more enamored with the fact the Bucs finished the season with the fifth-most yards in the league with a rookie quarterback, achieving a level of offensive production the franchise hadn’t seen before. They also feared another team would pry Koetter away as teams inquired about him as a possible head-coaching candidate.
When the Bucs fell to 5-11 during Koetter’s second season, the Glazers opted to keep him because of how hard the team competed for him down the stretch. Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer told ESPN they were encouraged by the close games the Bucs played in the last seven weeks of the season.
“That’s a credit to Dirk and the way they all stuck together and kept fighting hard. Because you know, late in the season, there is not a lot to play for,” Glazer said.
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves said this several months ago, referring to getting players in the locker room to “buy in,” but it’s pertinent to this situation.
“Pro players, we have a good gauge of real and fake,” Hargreaves said.
With that said, there’s no way Koetter could have stood up in front of his team this week and in good conscience, told the Bucs that Winston gives them a better chance to win.
It’s not as if the players couldn’t see what was happening. Wide receiver Mike Evans even said Sunday, when asked about both quarterbacks, “One is probably on a shorter leash, and one has played a lot longer, but they’re both very good players.”
Koetter has always been regarded as a straight shooter. Being anything but that would have risked the locker room unraveling at a time when turning around the season is still feasible. He had to start Fitzpatrick.
“Every game dictates the course of our season,” left tackle Donovan Smith said. “We’ve gotta go out there and win ’em. No excuses.”
Koetter’s fate might be tied to Winston’s success — or lack thereof — but consider this: If Fitzpatrick goes on to start for the remainder of the season and the offense thrives, Koetter might have afforded himself some level of protection, because it would demonstrate that his offense isn’t the problem.
He might even be applauded for making the tough decisions at quarterback. Remember, Koetter didn’t draft Winston. He actually wanted Marcus Mariota, according to reports, and the Winston selection falls on Smith and Licht.
There are financial reasons not to play Winston for the rest of the season, too. The Bucs picked up the fifth-year option in his next year’s contract for $20.9 million, but until the first day of the new league year in March 2019, that money is guaranteed for injury only. If Winston is healthy, he can be cut. That would send the Bucs back to the drawing board to find another quarterback, unless they decided to re-sign the 36-year-old Fitzpatrick, who is on a one-year deal.
If Winston continues playing and suffers a serious enough injury that he can’t pass a team physical, the Bucs will be on the hook for that money. If they have any reservations right now about his future, they can risk playing him to find out, or they can sit him the rest of the season and re-evaluate down the road.
On Monday, Koetter sounded like he wasn’t quite ready to turn the page on Winston. He seemed optimistic about Winston’s future. He didn’t say anything about it being tied to the Bucs, however.
“Jameis is a pro and he will continue to work on his craft. That’s all he can do,” Koetter said. “Very rarely is switching quarterbacks forever in this league. Just look around the league. It’s very rarely forever. Jameis, I’m sure, will get another chance at some point, and when he does, he just has to do a better job of taking care of the football.”