The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could have their starting quarterback on the practice field Wednesday, and if that's the case they could have him back in game action by Sunday.
Jameis Winston has spent the past three weeks resting a throwing shoulder he first injured in Arizona in Week Six and then again in New Orleans in Week Nine. After the first two weeks of that rest, his shoulder was examined again and deemed not ready for him to resume throwing. The results this Monday were different.
"Jameis had an MRI this morning and then he also did some rehab work with the trainers and if he does not have any soreness tomorrow after the rehab work, it looks like he will be cleared to practice on Wednesday," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter on Monday afternoon.
He later said that a lack of soreness on Tuesday would mean Winston would be cleared to take a full set of reps in practice. As of Monday, the team had to begin preparing for both possibilities, with Winston either back or still needing more rest.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' Week 12 matchup with the Falcons.
Until he is officially cleared, we will be making the game plan both ways and we will see what happens come Wednesday," said Koetter.
Given that the Koetter has said throughout Winston's period of rest that the team had not discussed the option of shutting the quarterback down for the rest of the season, this week's developments would seem to put him on track to returning to the lineup soon, perhaps on Sunday in Green Bay.
"It's my experience in the NFL that when your starting players are cleared to play, they return to be your full-time players," said Koetter.
Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick has started the past three games, which included wins over the Jets and Dolphins and Sunday's loss in Atlanta. In those three outings, Fitzpatrick has completed 47 of 86 passes (54.7%) for 530 yards, four touchdowns and one interception, compiling a passer rating of 84.0. Before he was sidelined for the first time in his three-year NFL career, Winston had completed 61.4% of his passes for 1,920 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions, with a passer rating of 87.3. In the four game he started before first suffering his shoulder injury in Arizona, he threw for almost exactly 300 yards per game, completed 61.0% of his passes and had a 7-3 TD-INT ratio.
Though the playoffs are an extreme longshot for the Buccaneers, now at 4-7 with five games to play, the team still has time to reestablish the sort of offensive rhythm that marked a promising first month of the season. That would be particularly true if a running game that has struggled for most of the year finds its footing down the stretch. There were some signs of life on Sunday in Atlanta, when the Buccaneers averaged 4.1 yards per carry, it's best single-game mark since Week Five. Doug Martin powered a first-quarter field goal drive with four carries for 27 yards and had a 4.7-yard average before exiting the game at halftime with a concussion. Jacquizz Rodgers averaged 3.9 yards per tote and Peyton Barber scored on two short runs. The Bucs surpassed four yards per carry despite not having a single run longer than 11 yards.
As Koetter noted, the Buccaneers managed to record 27 first downs in the game, tying a season-high, despite having poor results (4-11) on third down. That indicates good work on first down, which is how a team can put itself in position to use short second downs to take more aggressive shots down the field.
"I thought all four of our running backs contributed in a big way," said Koetter. "We actually, per average, ran the ball better than we had been running it per average, but we had zero explosive runs. We had a 10-yarder. Fitz had an 11-yarder on a scramble, but we don't really count that in our run game. We'd love to be more explosive, but we're taking shots – you don't take shots on third-and-18. You take shots on second-and-two."
However, Martin's concussion could put his availability for next Sunday's game in Green Bay in doubt. The veteran back's mishap adds to a growing list of injuries as December approaches. Though some of them eventually returned to action, all of these Buccaneers left Sunday's game at some point due to injury: Martin, tackle Demar Dotson (knee), center Ali Marpet (knee), guard Kevin Pamphile (arm), safety T.J. Ward (concussion), defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (back) and safety Josh Robinson (hamstring). The Buccaneers also started the game without Winston, defensive end Robert Ayers (concussion), cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (hamstring) and guard Evan Smith (concussion).
"We definitely have some injury issues this week," said Koetter. "This was a very physical game and we had … I think we had three offensive linemen that left the game and then came back in. We have seven O-linemen up [and] all seven of them played in the game. There is still testing going on right now, so as I say up here every week, over today and tomorrow that will all get figured out. But yeah, this is the most banged up that we've been after a game. We're going to have a couple other guys [to watch] this week."