The Bucs are finally face-to-face with harsh reality: Jameis Winston isn't their guy

There’s a difference between a loss and a total loss, and that’s where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear to be with Jameis Winston right now.

The former No. 1 overall pick is tied for the league lead in interceptions even though he missed the first three games of the season because of a suspension. He has double the interceptions (10) as old/new starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, and he has less than half of Fitzpatrick’s 13 touchdowns. You know it’s bad when a QB is handed the starter’s job over a 35-year-old journeyman and then he gets benched later in the same month.

It’s time for Tampa to move on.

But that’s the tricky part. How to move on? The trade deadline is Tuesday. The Bucs should see if there are any takers, and they should look for a Jimmy Garoppolo-type deal, with another team sending a second-round pick, if that’s even possible. Is a third-round pick worth it? The Bucs have to weigh that, and probably have already.

If the market isn’t there, then the Bucs have to take a risk. The question is, which risk?

There is the financial risk: After the season, the team will have the option to pick up the fifth year on Winston’s rookie deal, which will cost them $20.9 million. Is a quarterback worth $20.9 million if he’s not worth starting against the rival Panthers in the middle of his fourth year?

There is also the injury risk: If the Bucs go back to him and Winston gets hurt, that fifth year becomes fully guaranteed. The team could pay full price for a quarterback who never develops into an elite passer.

This is on top of the headline risk: Winston has embarrassed the franchise with off-field behavior, and although he has been out of legal trouble since allegedly groping an Uber driver in 2016, it’s not yet time to be certain he won’t err again.

Since returning from suspension and replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick, the former Heisman Trophy winner has struggled mightily. (Getty Images)
Since returning from suspension and replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick, the former Heisman Trophy winner has struggled mightily. (Getty Images)

And how can we forget the ever-present season risk: the Bucs are 3-4 and not out of the race by any means. They already have a road win against the Saints. They have yet to play all three division opponents at home. They have only one more non-conference game (against Baltimore). If Fitzpatrick is magical again, this could still be a playoff season. The team lost on Sunday to Cincinnati because of Winston; they cannot afford to lose again because of him.

So let’s play this out: If the Bucs ride with Fitzpatrick and if the season is saved, they have their answer. Keep Fitzpatrick, pocket the money, and look for a free-agent passer or a draft pick. Release Winston and hope he doesn’t turn into Patrick Mahomes at his next stop.

If Fitzpatrick fails, the Bucs might even try third-stringer Ryan Griffin — who they genuinely like — without risking the Winston money. Then, if Griffin is a dud, they can still give Winston one last shot.

Here’s the bottom line: Do the Bucs think they can contend next season with Fitzpatrick and a quarterback to be named later? There are some decent options in free agency, most notably Teddy Bridgewater. (There’s also Tyrod Taylor and Brett Hundley.) There are also some promising quarterbacks likely to be available in the middle of the first round of the draft, including Jarrett Stidham and Ryan Finley. Even if they keep Winston, the Bucs need to bring in a younger passer. If that passer beats out Winston, then they’ve paid Winston and wound up in the same place anyway.

There are two crucial questions when it comes to the Jameis Winston situation in Tampa:

1. Can they win without him?

2. Can he fix the turnover issue?

The first question, in a way, has already been answered. The offensive talent is enough to win games against good opponents behind a 35-year-old passer. The second question doesn’t look like it has an affirmative answer, as it’s been the better part of five seasons and Winston is still throwing picks.

It’s hard to find a franchise quarterback in the draft or free agency. But it has been more than a decade without the playoffs for the Bucs; they owe it to their fans to try.

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