Benching Jameis Winston late in the third quarter of the Buccaneers’ 37-34 loss to the Bengals on Sunday was an easy decision for coach Dirk Koetter. The starting QB’s fourth ugly interception of the game was a pick-six that buried Tampa Bay before backup Ryan Fitzpatrick nearly led a successful fourth-quarter comeback.
The decisions the Bucs need to make with Winston moving forward will be more difficult.
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In his fourth season after being drafted No. 1 overall by general manager Jason Licht and the Bucs in 2015, Winston has thrown 54 interceptions and fumbled the ball 35 times. His four picks Sunday gave him 10 on the season, tied for the most in the NFL despite that he missed the first three games of the season while suspended.
At this point in Winston’s career, the question is not whether he’s prone to turnovers; that much is clear. The question is whether Winston’s turnover proneness will finally cost him his job as Tampa Bay’s starting QB — and, maybe, cost Licht his job as GM.
“Today is not the day to decide that,” Koetter told the media when asked whether Winston will remain the starter after getting benched. “I’ll make it when the time is right.”
#Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston addressing turnovers: “I’ve just got to fix it.” #Buccaneers #nfl #TBvsCIN pic.twitter.com/WM3d6FuOWM
The reaction to Winston’s performance in Cincinnati was predictably strong. NFL Network’s Andrew Siciliano suggested the Bucs should trade the QB before Tuesday’s deadline. SB Nation’s Bucs blog cited Winston’s 11 turnovers in 13 quarters this season and said “can’t have that anymore.”
Tampa Bay will have to move forward carefully with Winston. Benching him permanently for Fitzpatrick, a journeyman passer, would mark an official failure on the part of Licht, whose record as Bucs GM fell to 25-46 with Sunday’s loss.
Further complicating matters: In April, Tampa Bay picked up the fifth-year option on Winston’s rookie contract. That means his salary next season ($20.9 million) is guaranteed for injury. So, money-wise, the Bucs have two options: stick with Winston for at least one more season, which will be expensive without a restructured deal, or don’t play him a down the rest of the year. He’ll need to be healthy for them to cut him in the offseason at no charge.
Jameis Winston is under contract next year for $20.9M. Have to think he is back under center next week. #Bucs
A third option — though an unlikely one — is a trade. Despite Winston’s turnover issues, there are worse starting QBs in the NFL. As noted above, a team like the Dolphins or Giants could reach out for a deal before the deadline. That could be an option for Licht — if he can admit defeat on his Winston pick.
“The signing bonus presents a major psychological barrier to trading,” SN contributor Jason Fitzgerald writes in his explanation of why big NFL trades are so rare. “The ‘sunk cost trap’ is something we all fall into in our daily lives. If you feel you already paid a large amount of money for something that no longer does the job you expected, you still try to fix it and make it work because you paid so much.”
Winston reportedly received a signing bonus of $16.7 million on his rookie deal. He also has been given annual training camp roster bonuses. Per Overthecap.com, if the Bucs were to trade Winston before the deadline, he would cost them $4,174,323 in dead money against the cap, and the team would save $3,767,580 in cap space.
From Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio regarding the Winston situation:
“As one source with knowledge of the dynamics of the Winston-Bucs relationship explained it to PFT, G.M. Jason Licht likely needs to continue to roll with Winston in the hopes of proving that the team made the right call with the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. Trading him would be an admission that the Bucs blew it, and Licht would potentially be pinning his future on Fitzpatrick leading a 3-4 team to a not likely wild-card berth or an even less likely division title.”
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In relief of Winston, Fitzpatrick threw for 194 yards and a couple of scores in the final quarter against the Bengals. That success, combined with the early-season “Fitzmagic” that complicated the decision to go back to Winston as starter in the first place this year, will tempt Koetter to play Fitzpatrick over Winston next week in Carolina and, perhaps, for the rest of the season. The coach, like Winston and Licht, is operating with questionable job security.
But the ripple effects of that decision would extend far beyond the actual playing field.
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