For instance, if Jameis Winston is told to stay on the bench, it could signal that his time with the team is rapidly coming to a close. The fourth-year player might have no one but himself to blame, though, given his shaky play this season and, of course, the personal issues he brought into it.
On the other hand, the Bucs should have every reason to feel that they know who Ryan Fitzpatrick is, at this point. Even if he’s more than capable of the type of sleight-of-throwing-hand he showed Sunday in a near-comeback against the Cincinnati Bengals, the magic usually wears off before too long and he’s left trying to pull his next rabbit out of another team’s helmet.
In the short term, though, it is the 35-year-old Fitzpatrick who has the momentum, given his performance in relief of Winston, who was lifted Sunday after throwing four interceptions, the last of which was returned for a touchdown. At that point, the Bengals held a 34-16 lead at home, but they needed a last-second field goal to win, 37-34, after a Fitzpatrick-engineered rally resulted in a tie with just over a minute left.
Little wonder, then, that Tampa Bay Coach Dirk Koetter was of no mind to make a hasty call.
“Yeah, we don’t need to talk about it,” he said after the game. “I mean, today is not the day I need to decide that, right? I don’t have any problem making decisions, and I’ll make it when the time is right. But now is not the right time to make it.”
Koetter might need some extra time just to line up all the meetings he will likely need to hold with higher-ups in the organization. Bucs general manager Jason Licht might well want to weigh in on such an important personnel matter. Members of the Glazer family, which owns the team, might need to be consulted as well.
The loss Sunday left Tampa Bay at 3-4, but more significantly, it also left the team with renewed doubts about whether the 24-year-old Winston will ever develop into the type of quarterback capable of leading a team to sustained success. In some ways, he’s like a younger version of Fitzpatrick, alternating terrific play with spasms of bafflingly ill-advised throws. The downside has been more pronounced this season, as he has 11 turnovers in just three and a half games.
The half-game appearance came after Winston took over from an ineffective Fitzpatrick midway through a Week 4 loss to the Bears. The latter had earned the start that week after playing well through the first three games, when Winston was serving an NFL-mandated suspension for a 2016 incident of alleged groping.
That episode added to the character concerns that have clouded Winston’s football career since he was at Florida State, where a fellow student accused him of rape. Adding to the potential complexity of Tampa Bay’s decision is the possibility that Fitzpatrick might have more support in the team’s locker room.
It certainly appears that DeSean Jackson would much prefer to see thick-bearded Harvard product back under center. Although he caught a 60-yard touchdown from Winston on Sunday, the veteran wide receiver’s numbers have generally been better with Fitzpatrick, and Jackson was reported before the game to have asked for a trade.
With the NFL’s trade deadline set for Tuesday afternoon, it’s not out of the question that either Winston for Fitzpatrick could, in fact, be the Bucs player who gets dealt. On one hand, that would make the decision about who starts in Week 9 much easier — and even possibly reduce some locker-room awkwardness — but it also would put that much more at stake, in terms of the team’s decision.
As for Winston, his demeanor after the game reflected a mix of confidence in himself and an understanding of how he had given Tampa Bay reason to be less confident.
“Every time I go out there, I feel like I give this team the best chance to win,” he said. “But I have to back that up. I know who I am, I know who I am as a player. I just have to execute.”