Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
Ryan Fitzpatrick has played 13 years in the NFL, some less predictable than others. He's had seasons in which he didn't throw a single pass and seasons in which he has started all 16 games. He's replaced an opening-day starter and been replaced as an opening-day starter. He's played alongside, in front of and behind such quarterbacks as Marc Bulger, Gus Frerotte, Carson Palmer, Trent Edwards, Case Keenum and Geno Smith.
There wasn't much mystery to the situation, however, when Fitzpatrick chose to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for his 13th season. The Buccaneers had a 23-year-old quarterback who had started every game since being drafted first overall in 2015. That was Jameis Winston, the first player in NFL history to open his career with consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons. Winston had proved durable, productive and excellent at leading his teammates. He was the present and the future for the Buccaneers.
"When I signed on here [I knew] this is Jameis' team – 100 percent, always," said Fitzpatrick on Wednesday as he prepared to take the Buccaneers' first-team reps in practice. "For me, the biggest thing when I am out there is almost not letting him down. I know how much this means to him. I know how much him being out there means to him, so when he came out last week that was one of the biggest things in my head: 'Alright, what can I do to not let him down?' I've probably felt that way about other guys before when I've had to go in, but with him especially. He is a special guy. That was just kind of the overwhelming feeling I had when I was in there."
Winston had been responsible for all but 11 of the Buccaneers' passes during the previous two regular-seasons. As consistently available as he had been, the team still wanted to make sure it was prepared to handle a Winston absence of any length, as the Bucs had playoff aspirations that could be derailed by a bad quarterback situation. That led to the signing of Fitzpatrick. Unfortunately, the Buccaneers had to turn to the veteran earlier than expected, when Winston left the game in Arizona in the second quarter on Sunday. It was the first time Winston had left a contest due to injury.
Fitzpatrick was ready. Though the Bucs were unsurprisingly unable to rally from a 31-0 deficit, they did score 33 points in the second half. Fitzpatrick threw for 290 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Now the Bucs may need him again to start on Sunday in Buffalo, where Fitzpatrick was the Bills' starter for most of four seasons from 2009-12. Winston may be ready to go by Sunday, but the Bucs are taking it easy on his shoulder to start the week and giving the reins to Fitzpatrick, at least for now.
"Ryan is always extremely well-prepared," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "If you put it in perspective, Jameis has 37 starts. Ryan has 116. Ryan got all of the passing reps today, so that's about 35 more than he's gotten since the season started with the first offense. He's a pro. He knows how to prepare and he showed that last week. However, it works out, we are going to be fine either way."
Fitzpatrick's three touchdown passes in Arizona went to Mike Evans, Cameron Brate and DeSean Jackson. Brate and Evans are the second-most prolific scoring pair of pass-catchers since the start of last season, while Jackson has been the league's most dangerous deep threat for a decade. Tampa Bay's passing attack also features productive slot receiver Adam Humphries, promising rookie tight end O.J. Howard and rookie wide receiver Chris Godwin. Doug Martin's recent return to the fold adds bite to the Bucs' passing attack, and the offensive line has quietly played very well this season. In other words, Fitzpatrick's ability to put up big numbers in a hurry in relief on Sunday was a product both of his own skill and experience and an array of targets that is difficult to contain.
"Offensively the talent level is obviously extremely high on this team," said Fitzpatrick. "It was a lot of fun being out there with them, but it's not just the two big names in Mike and DeSean. You look at a guy like Adam Humphries and how talented he is in the slot and the things that he really brings. He brings a unique element to our offense, so there is a lot of different guys that we can spread the ball around to and that's a nice thing to have as a quarterback."
As Koetter noted, Fitzpatrick had a very different role in practice on Wednesday than in the previous six weeks. The veteran passer didn't have to change much else in how he went about his day, however, because he has long since worked out a weekly plan of attack that works for him, in all of the many roles he's filled throughout his career.
"The biggest thing I learned a long time ago is the routine that you set, so I've been following the same routine for a long time," said Fitzpatrick. "For me, the only thing that would be different is whether you get reps during the week or not and work with the guys. We will see how this week goes. Everything is obviously still up in the air, but I will have to be ready for whatever role [and] whatever capacity they need me in … Whatever capacity they need me in I will be ready and available for them."
If Winston is ready to go by Sunday, Fitzpatrick may be back on the sideline. He knows that's the inevitable outcome, whether it arrives this week or sometime in the near future. In the meantime, it's his goal to keep the offense in good shape for Winston's arrival.
"Jameis is always the same – he's in here early and smiling and happy," said Fitzpatrick. "He's really the heartbeat of this team and he knows that. For him, it's genuine. That's who he is."
- Jameis Winston may not have thrown the football on Wednesday but quarterback Ryan Griffin threw his first practice-field pass in more than two months.
Griffin, who has been on injured reserve since the start of the season, officially began a 21-day period during which he can practice with the team without counting against the 53-man roster. Doing so is an indication that the team is at least moving forward in the process of using one of its two allowed "return-from-IR" options on the third-year quarterback.
Griffin suffered a right (throwing) shoulder injury in the Buccaneers' second preseason game and hasn't played since. At the time, he was in a pitched battle with Fitzpatrick to claim the primary backup spot to Winston. That battle became moot with Griffin landing on injured reserve, but the Buccaneers indicated their continuing commitment to the young passer when they signed him to a one-year extension covering the 2018 season on August 30.
Players who are placed on injured reserve after the final league-wide roster cuts to 53 must remain on that list for at least the first eight weeks of the season. Each team is given two "designated for return" options to bring players back from IR, but that option does not have to be specified at the time the player is placed on the list. In other words, teams are allowed to wait and see what develops before deciding which players to attempt to bring back. By starting the practice window on Griffin, the Bucs have elected to use one of those two options on him; that option will be spent whether or not Griffin is eventually placed back on the active roster.
The earliest Griffin would be eligible to return to the active roster is on October 30, the day after the team's Week Eight game against the Carolina Panthers. If he is not activated then or within the following week, he must remain on injured reserve for the rest of the season.
Griffin's return to practice comes at a fortuitous time for the Buccaneers, giving the team some midweek flexibility at the quarterback position while Winston recovers from a shoulder injury suffered on Sunday. With Winston's status uncertain for this weekend in Buffalo and his arm needing rest, the Buccaneers gave Fitzpatrick the first-team reps in practice on Wednesday. Griffin ran the scout team, which had been Fitzpatrick's role during the first six weeks of the season.
Other than confirming that Winston did not throw on Wednesday, Koetter would only say that he was limited in practice. Whether or not the team believes it can count on Winston to be either the starter or an active backup on Sunday won't be evident until the end of the week. If Winston is not cleared to play, it would be logical to expect the Buccaneers to sign a second quarterback to have active in case something happens to Fitzpatrick.
That quarterback can't be Griffin, not yet. His first opportunity to play in a game would be in New Orleans in Week Nine, if he is added to the roster by then. For now, he's helping the Bucs significantly simply by adding a live arm to practice.
MORE: 7 NOTABLE NUMBERS FOR WEEK 7* One week after getting linebacker Lavonte David back into the mix, the Buccaneers' defense could soon welcome another returning standout in linebacker Kwon Alexander. On Wednesday, Alexander practiced fully for the first time since sustaining a hamstring injury roughly midway through the season-opening win over Chicago in Week Two.Alexander returned to practice a week ago, but in a limited capacity. This week, the governor has been removed and the Bucs' rising-star middle linebacker is on pace to play on Sunday, barring a setback. That would be extremely good news for a defense that needs a boost after a humbling first-half performance in Arizona.
"Any time you get a good player back it helps your chances," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "There is no doubt about it. We're excited that Kwon has been released to come out and practice and we're excited to see him get out on the field. It's been a long time. Hopefully there is not a whole lot of rust on him. We got a chance to work him some last week, so we are ready to put him out there and let him go.
A look at the Bills' projected starters, according to the team's website.
"Kwon is a very emotional player. He is a fast player – he is probably one of the faster linebackers in the NFL. It gives you some sideline-to-sideline coverage, but also gives you a better chance to match tight ends and match running backs."
Rookie Kendell Beckwith's play in Alexander's absence has been eye-opening, and he will presumably still have a big role on defense even with his teammate's probable return. When the Bucs lined up for their first game of the season, David and Alexander were in their normal spots and Beckwith was the starter at strongside linebacker. Even as pleased as the team has been with the rookie, the chance to get Alexander back in the defense's driver seat is enticing, to say the least.
"You're always limited during the season based on the health of who you have up that week and how healthy they are," said Koetter. "We went into the year thinking we had two really good inside linebackers in Kwon and Lavonte and they've both been beat up. When we get them both back out there healthy, even though we are real happy with the guys who came in – they did a really nice job, but your better players are going to be a better defense."