Prior to news breaking that quarterback Jameis Winston is potentially facing a three-game suspension to start the 2018 NFL season, you might have said that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of the offseason's winners.
That no longer appears to be the case.
If Winston indeed must miss the Bucs' first three games because of an alleged incident involving a female Uber driver in 2016, the timing would be terrible. It's arguably Tampa's toughest three-game stretch — at New Orleans, followed by home games against the Eagles and Steelers. Those teams went a combined 37-11 last season and all made the postseason. The Buccaneers lost by 20 at New Orleans (with Winston) before beating the Saints in Week 17.
With Winston out, the Bucs would turn to Ryan Fitzpatrick. He actually played respectably well last season in three starts for the Bucs after a disastrous season with the Jets in 2016. Fitzpatrick, 35, completed 96-of-163 passes (58.9 percent) for 1,103 yards with seven touchdowns and three picks. He led the team to two of its four victories last season, including back-to-back wins against the Jets and Dolphins in Weeks 10 and 11, and almost helped erase a 24-zip deficit in a 38-33 loss at Arizona after Winston suffered a shoulder injury.
Even so, we certainly need to revise our sunny view from a few weeks ago in which we pondered whether the Bucs might be able to double their win total this season. If Winston's suspension is indeed for three games, he would be set to return to action in Week 4 at the Chicago Bears.
Avoiding an 0-3 start is crucial. Head coach Dirk Koetter might truly be feeling the heat, and ownership might tie him to GM Jason Licht. The feeling even before this Winston news was that this was a crucial, prove-it season for both if they wanted to steward the team into 2019.
The Bucs have talent on both sides of the ball, and the defense and run game should be better. But how much of the burden can those units take off of Fitzpatrick's shoulders? He has started 119 games in his career and has had a few stretches where he has played solid to good football. Still, it will require a beefed-up pass rush and contributions from rookie RB Ronald Jones to assist greatly.
This was a team that entered the 2017 season with high expectations, but it proved to be paper tigers. The Bucs struggled with situational football, struggling badly in the red zone, in two-minute situations and on special teams as well. They were outscored 121-64 in second quarters, often putting them in tough situations late in games, more often than not coming up short. Tampa was 3-7 in one-score games last season.
For Winston, the news could also hit him hard personally. Maturity concerns followed him from Florida State following a sexual abuse incident, and even though Winston was found not guility by the university, the Bucs felt the need to spend major resources to vet his character. Now with the NFL potentially suspending Winston in connection to this most recent incident, in which the Uber driver claims he groped her during a trip with Winston as her passenger, the team has to be highly leery of his behavior.
The Bucs are in the process now of deciding his long-term fate — they've reportedly picked up his fifth-year option for 2019, but that's guaranteed only for injury. Would they even entertain making a long-term offer to Winston anytime soon? Winston's play has been up and down in his three NFL seasons, and this imminent suspension most certainly complicates matters.