Jameis Winston has regained his job as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting quarterback for the second time this season, which means he's back at the helm of the most prolific passing attack – in terms of sheer yards, at least – in NFL history.
Winston will start for the Buccaneers against the San Francisco 49ers and, with the team's playoff hopes on life support after it dropped to 3-7 with a loss to the New York Giants on Sunday, perhaps for the remainder of the season. The fourth-year quarterback also started in Weeks 6-8 before being replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick due to a rash of turnovers.
Head Coach Dirk Koetter declined to announce his decision about the starting quarterback at his weekly day-after-game press conference Monday afternoon, but only because he had yet to meet with Winston and Fitzpatrick to let them know first. Shortly after that was accomplished, the Buccaneers released the information, which they never intended to keep a secret.
Winston, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, had started 45 of a possible 48 games during his first three seasons, missing three in 2017 due to a shoulder injury, during which he was ably replaced by Fitzpatrick. However, Winston was serving a three-game NFL suspension to start the 2018 season and that put Fitzpatrick back in the lineup for the first four games before a planned switch back to Winston during the subsequent bye week.
Fitzpatrick was put back in charge of the offense after nearly rallying the team to victory from 21 points down in Cincinnati in Week Eight. He replaced Winston in that game after the younger quarterback had thrown four interceptions through the first three quarters. That situation played out in reverse on Sunday against the Giants, with Fitzpatrick throwing three interceptions to help the Giants build a 24-7 lead and Winston coming in to direct four second-half touchdown drive during another impressive rally that just fell short.
Koetter might have chosen to stay with Winston moving forward regardless of Sunday's outcome, but Winston's efforts in the second half – 199 yards on 12 of 16 passing with two touchdowns and a 129.9 passer rating – didn't hurt.
"He played better," said Koetter. "He got us in the end zone four straight times. For the most part he made good decisions with the football."
The combined efforts of Winston and Fitzpatrick have helped the Buccaneers produce a league-leading 3,610 net passing yards, nearly 500 more than Atlanta, the second-place team in that category. Tampa Bay is on pace to break the Denver Broncos' 2013 record for passing yards in a season, and the offense has a whole has generated 500 or more yards in five of its 10 games. As a franchise, the Buccaneers have had 11 games of 500 or more yards in 43 seasons, nearly half of them occurring in 2018.
"Our quarterback play in general has been spectacular at times and not good enough at times," said Koetter. "That's just the story of where we're at on offense right now. Almost every game we get some beautiful, beautiful play at quarterback, some tremendous throws, some great decision-making, some beautiful adjustments. But at other times we've had some bad decision-making that has resulted in turnovers, and that's hurting our team."
Indeed, Winston and Fitzpatrick have also combined to throw 23 interceptions, the highest total of any team in the league, and the Buccaneers' negative-23 turnover ratio is also worst in the NFL. There is little doubt that it is the turnovers (and the complementary lack of takeaways on defense) that have derailed the team after a promising 2-0 start and in spite of continued big offensive numbers in terms of both yards and points. Thus, it is the top priority of whichever quarterback is in charge to get that issue under control if the Buccaneers are to finish the season strong.
"To win games you have to protect the football and we're not doing a good enough job of that," said Koetter. "That's just the bottom line: We have to protect the football.
"I'm not trying to put this a hundred percent on them. The quarterback's going to get too much blame when things go wrong and too much credit when things go right. Some of these turnovers are one hundred percent on the quarterback, but other time's it's not. Some of this is the fact that we're down in games and we try to do too much at times. But it's a bottom-line business."