For the first time since Jameis Winston was drafted out of Florida State in 2015, the quarterback’s mural will not be installed at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. At the end of June, the NFL announced that it has suspended the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback for the first three games of the 2018 season. According to the league’s statement, the suspension is in response to an accusation that Winston was involved in a sexual assault on an Uber driver in March of 2016.
But murals are the last thing the Buccaneers will have to worry about heading into the season without Winston. In the aftermath of the league’s decision, the Bucs now have to face the start of the season without their franchise quarterback and leader. And when you look at who is on Tampa’s schedule for those games, you can quickly assume that it is the toughest stretch of games for any team to open the season. From Weeks 1-3, the Bucs will meet New Orleans on the road, they then will return home to play the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, followed by the always dangerous and potent Pittsburgh Steelers. Even with Winston under center, the Bucs would have had a major challenge escaping these matchups with a winning record. In fact, it is more conceivable that they open the year with an 0-3 record.
So what can we all expect from the Winston-less Bucs at the season’s open? The truth is that Tampa Bay is fortunate enough to have an experienced backup in Ryan Fitzpatrick. Not only has Fitzpatrick started many games in the NFL, but he actually had six in-game appearances for this same Tampa team just last season. He fared pretty well, considering he was suddenly thrust into the lineup. Now, with a full offseason to prepare, particularly while knowing he will get to begin the season as the starter, it’s fair to assume that he will be far better prepared, which could lead to improved play on his behalf.
But even when put on the spot last year, Fitzpatrick played rather well. Fitz may have struggled at times, and his yards per attempt left a lot to be desired at 6.77 YPA, but overall he managed to keep the offense moving, and threw seven touchdowns to just three interceptions in his time on the field. Of course, the team needs more out of him if they are to remain competitive and perhaps squeeze out a victory in one of the three difficult matchups that await them in September.
As far as the change in strategy and offensive play-calling, the Bucs’ receivers continued to put up stats for the most part. Most surprisingly, Mike Evans had more yards per game, as well as yards per target, than the prolific receiver had in his games with Winston last season. Another beneficiary of playing with Fitzpatrick was catch-passing running back Charles Sims. Fitz’s tendency to check down early and often resulted in an increase in reliance on the running back to produce plays on passes near or behind the line of scrimmage.
The players who truly took a hit with Fitzpatrick on the field were DeSean Jackson and Cameron Brate. Jackson plays a more vertical and deep ball game, and his routes better mesh with Winston’s abilities. Meanwhile, Brate seemed to just not have the chemistry with Fitz, and it was clearly evident through his personal struggles in those games.
So what should we expect from the Bucs in the first three games of the season? The fact that Fitzpatrick will get the first team reps in training camp and in the preseason could go a long way in opening up the playbook, even during Winston’s suspension. The team seems like it will definitely need to pass a lot, particularly if they fall behind to any of the high-powered offenses on their slate to start the season. It is more than likely that any of the Saints, Eagles, and Steelers will jump out to a lead over Tampa Bay, further forcing Fitzpatrick to chuck the ball more than he or the Bucs would like to see.
But even if Tampa does start the season at 0-3 with Fitzpatrick calling the shots, would they have necessarily done any better with Winston? On paper, would we expect Winston to outduel Drew Brees, Carson Wentz, or Big Ben? The answer appears to be NO. This is purely theoretical of course, but it is the most likely outcome, regardless of which quarterback was playing for the Bucs in these particular games.
Ultimately, I think the Bucs will be able to get at least one win in these three games. The fact that they play at home could provide a huge boost in order to overcome the monumental challenge that the NFL scheduled for them. If they can achieve at least that, Winson should retake the reins the rest of the way, in what should be a path of much lesser resistance.