EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Adding another bizarre twist to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ quarterback situation, Ryan Fitzpatrick was replaced by Jameis Winston, who led three scoring drives in a 38-35 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday, prompting coach Dirk Koetter to consider making yet another quarterback change.
“It’s pretty obvious — he came in and lit it up,” Koetter said of Winston. “I’ve been telling you guys, I’ve been saying all along — Jameis’ day was gonna come back. But that’s water under the bridge right now.”
As for the quarterback situation, Koetter said, “We’ll see. I’ll let you guys know [Monday].”
In a situation that was eerily similar to the Bucs’ 37-34 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8, Fitzpatrick was intercepted three times, including a pick-six by linebacker Alec Ogletree that came off a deflected pass by cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
“After the third one there in the end zone there, I thought that would probably be the decision,” Fitzpatrick said of getting pulled.
“I was proud of the way Jameis went in there and played. It’s not easy to do. It’s not easy not to have any preparation and working with the scout team and [being] thrown in there in the middle of the game.”
Against the Bengals, however, it was Winston who had been pulled after a pick-six, his fourth interception that day.
“Fitz has been playing great. It just happened,” Winston said. “You just have to be able to step into that role. He did the same thing in Cincinnati, when he came in and had an incredible comeback. But at the end of the day, we fell short of a victory.”
Wide receiver DeSean Jackson said that the only way he could explain why one quarterback would struggle one day with the other stepping in successfully to bail him out, and the same thing happening in reverse, was that it provided “refreshment.”
“When you have change, guys rally behind a guy — that’s what you saw. Guys [were] rallying behind [Winston],” he said.
Winston completed 12-of-16 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 129.9. Fitzpatrick went 13-of-21 for 167 passing yards, zero touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 47.2. He did produce a rushing touchdown in the second quarter, scrambling into the end zone on a broken play on fourth-and-1.
Koetter said that Winston came close to starting this week, after the Bucs’ 16-3 loss to the Washington Redskins. But when Koetter announced his decision Monday, he said he felt Fitzpatrick gave them the best chance to win. Koetter said that he has no regrets about the decision.
“You can second-guess every play out there. You can second-guess every play, every decision that doesn’t work — of course, that’s just the NFL,” said Koetter, who at 3-7 is fighting for his job.
Koetter, now in his third year in Tampa Bay, has taken numerous measures in recent weeks to try and salvage the Bucs’ season. He fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith after Week 6 and took over offensive playcalling last week before giving it right back to offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
But the big issue has been turnovers, regardless of who is starting at quarterback. Winston has turned the ball over 11 times, throwing 10 interceptions — tied for second most in the league despite playing in just five games with three starts.
Fitzpatrick has turned the ball over eight times since Week 9 — when Fitzpatrick took over for Winston — more than any other player in the league, and thrown six interceptions. Fitzpatrick has 12 interceptions and 13 turnovers for the season.
“That’s always been an offensive focus,” Winston said. “We know our main job is to give our team a chance to win, and turning the ball over doesn’t allow that to happen.”
The Buccaneers have indicated that Winston’s $20.9 million option next season does not affect whether he plays, that they’re merely trying to win games. Koetter and general manager Jason Licht are also fighting for their jobs.
But there is risk to putting Winston back in action this season. His salary for 2019 is guaranteed for injury only, so should he suffer a serious injury and not be able to pass a team physical next year, the team would be forced to pay him that money, rather than having the option to cut him before the first day of the new league year in March 2019.
Some had even speculated that the benching was the Bucs’ way of indicating Koetter and Licht had moved on from Winston and he would be cut at the end of the season. Winston, however, said he did believe he would get a chance to return this season.
“Yes, absolutely. … Ryan was doing an amazing job … so I was doing everything I possibly could to be a good teammate,” said Winston, who said it had been hard watching his team struggle from the sideline.
“Losing is the hardest part. It hurts everybody when we lose. It hurts the coaches, it hurts the players and the whole organization. We have to find a way to win — whatever that way is.”