While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' plan at quarterback – at least for the start of the season – already seemed obvious, it took on more of an official air on Thursday. Ryan Fitzpatrick will take the reins while Jameis Winston is serving a three-game suspension.
"If nothing crazy happens, Fitz will be our planned starter, so Ryan Griffin is the backup," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter after Thursday's training camp-opening practice. "So he's one play away and we still know that Jameis is going to be back after the suspension. Luckily for us, we have three quarterbacks that know our system, and we have confidence in all three guys. We have a plan in place. You know, any plan you have for your rotation, [the] number-one thing it has to be [is] flexible because things can change just like that. I think we have a good plan in place and we're working to the best of our ability."
Not long ago, the idea of opening the season with Fitzpatrick under center would have seemed like the "crazy" turn of events, because the Buccaneers had a well-established fourth-year starter in Winston. But the NFL handed down its suspension in June and that bumped Fitzpatrick, a 14th-year veteran in his second season with the team, up the depth chart. The Buccaneers' QB depth chart also features Griffin, who is in his third year with the team, and undrafted rookie Austin Allen, but neither has thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game. Fitzpatrick has 119 career NFL starts, including three with the Buccaneers last year while Winston was recovering from a shoulder injury.
"He's played in over 100 NFL games," said Koetter. "Yeah, he's got experience. He's extremely smart. He knows our system. The players believe in him."
Fitzpatrick and Griffin went into last year's training camp, Fitzpatrick's first with the team, in a competition to win the primary reserve spot behind Winston. That competition didn't last long as Griffin suffered a shoulder injury early in the preseason. Fitzpatrick took the number-two spot and, when he was called upon, helped the team win two of his three starts while throwing seven touchdown passes against three interceptions. Thanks to that run, Fitzpatrick is the clear number-one in Winston's absence and Koetter doesn't expect Griffin to take that job away.
"It would have to be something that I can't foresee right now, because Fitz played so well when he got his opportunity last year," said the coach. "So I don't know what that would be, barring injury, but never say never."
Indeed, it is that experience that is the gulf between the two Ryans. That said, the team has invested three years in Griffin, often keeping three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster when many other teams roll with two, and see value in him backing up Fitzpatrick while Winston is out. Koetter said he doesn't expect to bring in another veteran quarterback to provide more experience.
"Yeah, I mean, Ryan Griffin is a veteran backup, he just hasn't played in games," he explained. "Ryan Griffin suffers from the old Catch-22: He's been in the league five years, two with the Saints and three with us, but [he can say], 'Coach, how do I get experience if you don't give me experience?' But we've kept Ryan around here for three years because we believe in him and we think he can play. He's got to get his chance."
The Buccaneers plans to distribute training camp and preseason snaps between Fitzpatrick, Griffin and Winston became more clear in practice on Thursday. Fitzpatrick ran the first-team offense, Griffin directed the second-team group and Winston got chunks of playing time with the first, second and third-team units. Obviously, Fitzpatrick needs to prepare to lead the offense on opening day. Winston still needs work, and he won't be able to get it during his suspension, but he doesn't necessarily have to get all that work with the starters.
As for his role on the sideline, Koetter said that Winston can still offer his leadership, but in a different way than when he is the starting quarterback.
"I think your team has a lot of leaders, and being a leader starts with being the leader of yourself," said Koetter. "I talk to the guys about that often. I think that's one of Jameis' strengths as a football player, is his leadership. But, right now, where we're standing right now with the three-game suspension, it's time that Jameis leads from the rear and there's nothing wrong with that."
Winston understands that role and plans to help Fitzpatrick and the rest of the team any way he can.
"This actually gives me an opportunity to lead behind the scenes," he said. "I get a chance to observe my teammates and help them behind the scenes.
"This training camp is important. I don't want this to be about me. I want this to be about us getting better and us hitting this season with a mission to go 3-0."