Before he left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to begin a suspension that would keep him away from the team for the first three weeks of the season, Jameis Winston had some encouraging words for Ryan Fitzpatrick, the veteran quarterback who was going to replace him as the starter during his absence. Winston thought Fitzpatrick was going to tear it up with the Buccaneers talented cast of offensive players.
And he was right, particularly in season-opening wins over New Orleans and Philadelphia. Fitzpatrick ran into some turnover issues in Week Three, though it didn't keep him from becoming the first NFL player with three consecutive 400-yard passing games, and Tampa Bay's offense as a whole stumbled in Chicago in Week Four. Overall, the numbers from those first four games combined tell the story of a player who did exactly what the Buccaneers believed he would when needed, or perhaps even more. Fitzpatrick completed 67.4% of his passes for 1,356 yards, 11 touchdowns, five interceptions and a sparkling 114.4 passer rating.
And as much as Winston and the Buccaneers' coaching staff believed the offense would be in good hands with Fitzpatrick filling in, they also believed the good times would continue when their talented young passer was back at the helm. It's natural, of course, for there to be questions about a lineup change at the most important position in the sport, but Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken compares the Bucs' current situation at quarterback to the way he felt when the same concerns were being raised prior to Week One.
"The question was asked before we started the year, 'How do you feel about [Fitzpatrick taking over],'" said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "It's funny how it flips. 'How do you feel about Ryan playing quarterback?' Well, we went 2-1 with him last year; I feel pretty good. We play well around him, we've got good players. So now it's four weeks later and [it's], 'Hey, how do you feel about Jameis?'"
The time for that question has arrived, as Winston will resume his position as the team's starting quarterback when they return to action in Atlanta on Sunday. And Monken does in fact feel just fine about how Winston will perform now that he's back at the helm. Monken noted that Winston has looked good on the practice field this week, without any obvious rust from his layoff, and that his timing has been sharp.
While Winston doesn't have the same immediate body of work to examine as Fitzpatrick – the younger passer got to play the second half of that most recent game in Chicago, throwing a total of 20 passes – he does have residual momentum from a good end to the 2017 season and a strong showing in the 2018 preseason.
"Jameis really did have – outside of a few players here and there – the back end of last year, [he played well; the preseason I thought he played well," said Monken. "Were we expecting to come like that [during Fitzpatrick's starts]? No. Were we hopeful that we would be successful? Of course. And we're excited moving forward with Jameis."
Both Monken and Head Coach Dirk Koetter noted Winston's ever-improving accuracy. He completed a career-best 63.8% of his passes last year and was hot down the stretch, and he was an 80% passer in this summer's preseason. He also completed 80% of his throws in that Chicago cameo (16 of 20), though two of his incompletions were also interceptions. Some of this is likely due to better decision-making, with Winston taking what the defense is giving and what the game situation demands.
"I just think my mentality just to go out there and win for this team," said Winston. "If that's taking 3-yard completions for the remainder of the game, if that's having to hit a deep shot down the field, my main focus is just winning, not really stressing about anything. I just want to put my team in a good position to win."
Of course, the most exciting thing about the Buccaneers' prolific passing of the first quarter of the season has been the big plays. DeSean Jackson, in particular, has had a string of downfield catches after that was an issue for the team last year. In his first three seasons, Winston seemed to display his greatest strength on intermediate passes, as opposed to the long ball, but the team is confident that Jackson and others will continue to pick up big-yardage plays with Winston distributing the ball.
"I think so. If you go back to the games we played towards the end of the year and the throws that he made, specifically the last throw, the game-winner against New Orleans, there were a couple against Carolina, you started to see more confidence throwing the ball down the field, making those types of throws," said Monken. "And that's carried over, from what I've seen in the preseason and the last couple days."
For his part, Winston is eager to get back on the playing field and start working with that same talented cast of offensive players that helped Fitzpatrick fare so well.
"Every year I just reflect on how good this team has gotten," he said. "That gives credit to Jason Licht and to the hard work that these guys who came in with me have been putting in since they've been here. I'm just blessed to have the opportunity to quarterback a team with a good offensive line, dynamic guys on the outside and great guys in the back field."
CAPTAIN VOTE COMING: The Buccaneers haven't decided which players will wear "Cs" on their jerseys in 2018, but they will fairly soon.
The Buccaneers departed from their usual approach to team captains in 2018 and elected not to pick permanent ones in advance of the season opener. Instead, they have been choosing a new group of captains to handle the game-opening coin flips each week, and that will continue to be the case this Sunday in Atlanta. Koetter came up with the idea in order to give the players a chance to gather some more information before voting for their team leaders.
"I didn't want this to be a popularity contest," said Koetter. "I wanted there to be some games played and ups and some downs in the season to let the players really decide who they think the real leaders are instead of just maybe guys that are perceived as leaders. It still might end up the same way, and I'm fine if it does. It's their vote. I'm not going to sway that, but that's why I did it that way."
Teams are actually required by the NFL to officially name season-long captains by a certain date, which is rapidly approaching, according to Koetter. Those captains will be chosen the same way as always, solely by votes from all the players on the team. Last year, the Buccaneers had six captains: Jameis Winston and Mike Evans on offense; Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy on defense; and Josh Robinson on special teams. All but Robinson remain on the roster in 2018.
"I definitely want our guys to have that experience," said Koetter. "It's important to them. That deadline's coming up, so we will – the plan all along – we will have the players vote for season captains."
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center.
UNCERTAIN TIMETABLE FOR BECKWITH: Second-year linebacker Kendell Beckwith has not practiced since suffering an ankle injury as a passenger in an auto accident in April. When he was still not back on the field by the end of the preseason, the Buccaneers placed him on the reserve/non-football-injury list, which meant he would not be eligible to practice or play for the first six weeks of the season.
The Buccaneers will play Atlanta in a Week Six matchup on Sunday, and that means Beckwith's first chance to return to practice will be next Monday, October 15 (theoretically, though the Buccaneers won't actually practice until Wednesday). That may not happen, however.
"I'm not sure if he'll be able to practice next week," said Koetter. "I think we've got to remember Kendell suffered a serious injury. Although it was a non-football injury, it was serious, and he had a serious surgery. He is fighting hard to make it back. I'm not sure if he'll be quite ready next week to practice."
A 21-day window will open on Monday and Beckwith can return to practice at any point during those three weeks. He would actually be eligible to be activated to the roster and to play against Cleveland in Week Seven, but his return to practice and active-roster status do not have to be in the same week. If the Buccaneers do not activate Beckwith by the end of that 21-day window, he will not be eligible to return this season.
"We've got a couple weeks for him to get back to practice before we've got to make a final decision," said Koetter. "Jason has to decide if we're going to permanently keep him down this year or bring him up. It would be great if we can get him up, but it's just strictly based on his health."
So far, Beckwith has not had a chance to build on a very promising rookie campaign. The former LSU star slipped to the Buccaneers in the third round of the 2017 draft because another bit of misfortune, an ACL tear late in the Tigers' 2016 season, left his status a bit uncertain. As it turned out, Beckwith was cleared to practice at the start of training camp and was the team's starting strongside linebacker by opening day. He eventually proved to be a capable middle linebacker as well, filling in while Alexander was hurt, and the Bucs even used him as a stand-up edge rusher late in the season.
So far, Beckwith has not been able to make the same faster-than-expected recovery from his current injury. He may return soon but his status as of Week Six remains uncertain.