Jameis Winston returned to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' headquarters on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, he will return to the practice field. When he does, he'll go into it knowing exactly what the team's plan is at quarterback in Week Four.
Winston is back with his team because he has completed the three-game suspension the NFL handed him in June, a time during which he was not permitted any contact with his coaches or teammates. During his absence, 14th-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick started the first three games and helped lead the Buccaneers to a 2-1 start, with wins over potential playoff-race rivals New Orleans and Philadelphia. The team's next game is on Sunday in Chicago, and it's reasonable to wonder if Winston will quickly regain his previous starting job or if Fitzpatrick will remain at the reins.
Head Coach Dirk Koetter wasted no time in making sure that both Winston and Fitzpatrick know exactly what lies ahead.
"I talked to both Jameis and Fitz," said Koetter. "It's great to see Jameis back in the building. He was here early, working hard. [We] welcomed Jameis back, we're glad to have him – a short week and he assured me that he was ready to go, which I don't doubt for a minute, that he's been working hard.
"We know what we're going to do, both guys know what we're going to do. I hope everybody can appreciate that it doesn't do us any good to tell our opponents what we're going to do. That will work itself out here as the week goes on. But we do have a plan and both guys are aware of it."
Koetter and his staff have also planned beyond this week – the Buccaneers will have a bye after their trip to Chicago and then will return to play at Atlanta in Week Six – but things can shiftrapidly in the NFL so it is a plan that can't be completely set in stone.
"Yeah, we have a plan for it but, again, you never really know how it's going to go from week to week," he said. "Look at Chris Conte's situation that we just talked about. That's just one example. I have an idea how it's going to go but this is an ever-changing game."
Fitzpatrick also started three games for the Buccaneers last year while Winston was recovering from a shoulder injury and helped the team win two of them. Winston regained his starting spot when he was healthy and played well down the stretch. Fitzpatrick's current run is a bit different in that Tampa Bay's offense has been firing on all cylinders to start the season and Fitzpatrick himself has some gaudy numbers, including a 124.8 passer rating, good for second in the NFL. He is the first player in NFL history to throw for over 400 yards in three consecutive games, and he has already connected on 11 touchdown passes.
Winston performed well in the preseason before his suspension began and Koetter has no doubt that his fourth-year quarterback worked diligently to remain in playing shape and in command of the playbook while he was out of contact with the team. The Buccaneers have confidence in both passers, as well as reserve Ryan Griffin.
As such, Koetter stressed that the current situation, while obviously uncommon, is not something that the Buccaneers have to endure or win in spite of.
View photos of the Buccaneers' Week 3 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"This quarterback issue that we have right now is not an adversity," said Koetter. "We are blessed. I think we have three good quarterbacks on our roster right now, and not all teams in the league can say that. Griff hasn't proven it yet but I think we have two guys we can win with and a third guy I'd love to get a shot some time."
Winston's return will require a move that will be made public, as he will eventually occupy a spot on the 53-man roster. Of course, the team currently has an open spot after placing Conte on injured reserve on Tuesday. However, the Buccaneers could fill that spot and maintain depth in the secondary and still have Winston on the practice field the next two days. The Buccaneers have a three-day roster exemption for Winston that begin on Tuesday and can stay at 54 players until Friday morning. They have to get back to 53 before the start of practice on Friday.