The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began their bye week on Monday, but when they return to game action in Week Six Jameis Winston will be their starting quarterback.
Head Coach Dirk Koetter made that announcement on Monday, the day after Winston played the second half in a 48-10 loss to the Chicago Bears.
Winston will replace veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who started the first four games of the season, including the three during which Winston was serving an NFL suspension. The Buccaneers went 2-2 during Fitzpatrick's run, with wins over the now 3-1 New Orleans Saints and the defending-champion Philadelphia Eagles, and the 14th-year passer threw for 1,356 yards, 11 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 114.4 passer rating in that span. Fitzpatrick won the NFC Player of the Week award in each of the first two weeks of the season.
Koetter's decision to turn back to Winston was not a reaction to the Buccaneers' rough outing in Chicago, in which the Bears built a 35-3 lead by halftime. Fitzpatrick had an unproductive first half in that game, completing nine of 18 passes for 126 yards and no touchdowns, but the Buccaneers didn't fare well in any facet of the game and were arguably worse on defense.
"In no way is this on Fitz that we lost like we did yesterday," said Koetter. "Fitz didn't play as well as he had been playing, but this was a 100-percent team deal, as I said on the front end. We brought Fitz here two years ago to be a mentor for Jameis and to be a guy that could fill in if Jameis was out for injury. Both times we've asked to fill in, for a three-game stretch a year ago he went 2-1, a four-game stretch this year – and when I say, 'He went,' he led us to 2-1 a year ago – and he led us to 2-2 this year. So, job well done. In fact, excellent. I think any team in the league would take that.
"Again, Fitz's combination of experience, talent and leadership is valued at a very high level here. But at the same time, Jameis Winston is the guy that's going to be here way longer than I am, so he needs to be out there playing and he will be, unless he gets hurt, at Atlanta."
In fact, Koetter's decision to bring Winston back in Week Six had been in the work for months and, barring particularly extreme results in one way or another during the first month, wasn't going to change. The timing of the Buccaneers' bye week, particularly after a "short" week created by Monday Night Football, was a key factor in the plan to handle Winston's return from his three weeks away from the team.
"Last summer I was on vacation when we got the call – I got the call from [General Manager] Jason [Licht] – that Jameis would be suspended for three games, first thing I did was look at our schedule and see where we were," said Koetter. "[I] saw that Pittsburgh was our third game on Monday night, saw that Chicago was our fourth game on the road, short week. So in the back of my mind, from that point on, I kind of had it in my head that Fitz [Ryan Fitzpatrick] would start the first four games and Jameis would start in Atlanta, unless we were either playing lights-out or…lights-out in a good way or lights-out like we did yesterday in a bad way."
Nor did Winston's performance in his first action since the preseason sway Koetter's decision. Against the Bears, the fourth-year passer completed 16 of 20 passes for 145 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, with one of the picks the result of his arm being hit by Khalil Mack as he was beginning his throw. Winston also made several positive plays with his feet, scrambling for yards or to buy time for throws downfield.
Winston also made some plays that weren't up to his usual standards, and hopefully the opportunity to get him some unplanned playing time in Chicago will lead to fewer such plays in Atlanta.
"I think you see some plays where Jameis looked very sharp as far as running the offense, getting us in and out of the huddle," said Koetter. "We ran a fair amount of no-huddle when he was in there. Obviously his scrambling, he didn't forget how to scramble and made a couple plays in that area. But then at the same time, I think the perfect example is that out route to DeSean [Jackson] right in front of our bench where Jameis is going to hit that 99 times out of a hundred. And he didn't just miss it by a little, he missed it by a lot. That's just something that I think is one of the benefits of him playing yesterday instead of that possibly happening in Atlanta. Because as much as we try to make practice at game speed, it's not game speed."
Sunday's game marked the first time that Winston has played in a game in which he did not start. He opened all 32 games in his first two seasons, and in fact threw all but 11 of the Buccaneers' passes in that span. Last year, he missed three games and parts of two others due to a shoulder injury but returned to play well down the stretch. In his last five games, Winston completed 123 of 183 passes for 1,584 yards, nine touchdowns, five interceptions and a 99.2 passer rating. That good run continued in the preseason this summer when he compiled a passer rating of 126.9 on 41 throws, with three touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Winston, the first-overall pick in the 2015 draft, has played in 46 games overall and has thrown for 11,781 yards, 70 touchdowns and 46 interceptions. His 11,636 yards entering this season represented the third-highest total in NFL history for a quarterback through his first three seasons, trailing only the marks put up by Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning.