It's not often that a team makes an in-season quarterback switch and can insert the league leader in passer rating, but that's exactly what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to do.
On Monday, Head Coach Dirk Koetter revealed that 14th-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick will replace Jameis Winston as the Buccaneers starting quarterback, beginning with their Week Nine game at Carolina. Koetter did not specify if the move was for a single week or the remainder of the season, only saying it was "for right now." When asked how this move could impact Winston's future with the team, Koetter reiterated that he was, "just looking at the next week."
"We're going to start Fitz at quarterback this week," said Koetter in his day-after-game press conference following the Bucs' last-second loss in Cincinnati the day before. "That's what we feel like we need to do this week to give ourselves the best chance. It's just for right now. The most important thing we've got is this week. We'll just have to see how things go. I don't like switching quarterbacks, it's not in my makeup to switch quarterbacks, but we just feel like we've got to make the switch at this time."
Fitzpatrick returns to the helm of the NFL's top-ranked offense after starting the first four games of the season. The first three of those games came while Winston was serving an NFL suspension, and the Buccaneers chose to stick with Fitzpatrick in Game Four at Chicago in advance of a bye week. Winston took over in Week Six and has started the last three games. However, he was pulled in favor of Fitzpatrick in Sunday's 37-34 loss in Cincinnati after throwing his fourth interception of the game in the third quarter.
Fitzpatrick helped rally the Bucs to a 34-34 tie before Cincinnati kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired. He completed 11 of 15 passes for 194 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, finishing with a passer rating of 154.9. That pushed his overall 2018 rating to 119.3, which leads all qualifying passers in the NFL. Fitzpatrick won the NFC Offensive Player of the Week award in each of the first two weeks of the season after leading the Buccaneers to wins over New Orleans and Philadelphia, and he has 13-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a stellar average of 10.8 yards per pass attempt.
"He's done a really good job of putting the ball in the right spot, and we do have explosive players," said Koetter. "He has said himself that in all his time playing he's never been on a team that has this many guys that can make plays for him. He's just done a good job of putting the ball in the right spot.
"Now, Jameis also did that at times yesterday, too. The 29-yard throw, the fade, to Mike [Evans] down their sideline, that's as pretty a throw as you're ever going to see. The 60-something-yarder over the top to DeSean [Jackson] to break the record, that was similar to the double move that Fitz hit Mike. Both guys have had their moments when they've been extremely sharp, but this is really just about we have to do a better job protecting the football."
Indeed, both Winston and Fitzpatrick have put up gaudy yardage totals at the helm of a passing attack that leads the NFL with 376.3 yards per game. The deciding factor, as Koetter notes, was turnovers. Winston's four interceptions in Cincinnati give him 10 on the season in three-and-a-half games of play. Tampa Bay has a league-worst negative-13 turnover ratio, a very significant problem for a team that has suffered three of its four losses by a single score. Even the Buccaneers' one win in the last five outings featured a blown 14-point lead to Cleveland and a rescuing 59-yard field goal in overtime thanks to four giveaways.
"We're not getting any [turnovers], that's one thing, but minus-three a week ago and minus-four in this game, that just can't happen," said Koetter. "We've got to get more [takeaways], but in the meantime we'd better quit giving it away. It's as simple as that."
Koetter said that two of Winston's interceptions in Cincinnati were overthrows and two were the results of poor decisions. He also noted that, despite those struggles, Winston continues to see the field as well as almost any quarterback in the NFL. Winston has thrown for 12,817 yards and 75 touchdowns in 48 starts – the equivalent of three seasons – and obviously remains an extremely talented passer. Koetter believes the 24-year-old can still be a successful quarterback in the NFL.
"Jameis is a pro and he will continue to work on his craft; that's all he can do," said the coach. "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."