On Thursday, the news broke that Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston will officially be suspended for the first three games of 2018 by the NFL for his alleged involvement in groping an Uber driver back in March 2016.
This news came to the dismay of many fans who were ready to gear up for a promising season after a very good offseason by the Bucs.
After hearing this, fans and pundits alike have already dismissed the Buccaneers’ season due to the fact that they play the Saints, Eagles, and Steelers during the first three weeks of the season. Winston will miss all of those games and an 0-3 start in the NFL is practically a death sentence.
But fear not, for I have good news.
Five years ago, you couldn’t pay me to type this, but the Bucs are in still in good shape with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm.
Fitzpatrick has been the model of inconsistency throughout his career, but as a short-term solution, he has shown that he is more than capable at running an offense effectively. In his five games played last year he completed 58.9% of his passes for 1,103 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
That was good enough to rank him as the 21st best-passer in the league according to ProFootballFocus - ahead of the likes of Deshaun Watson, Kirk Cousins, and Derek Carr.
He was just two spots behind Winston (19th overall).
You could easily make an argument that Fitzpatrick is the best backup quarterback in the league. Just for clarification, I do not believe that to be the case after Nick Foles’ incredible postseason run - however, when comparing each quarterback’s three starts during the regular season, the numbers aren't that far off.
Foles did just enough to help the Eagles win against the Rams after replacing Carson Wentz. Sure, he had a stellar game against the 31st ranked Giants defense, but he quickly collapsed against the Oakland Raiders and didn’t do a damn thing in his short time against the Cowboys.
He completed 46.9 percent of his passes for 202 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions in his last five quarters of play during the regular season.
Overall, excluding the postseason, Foles scored worse (-8.6) during the regular season than Fitzpatrick (-3.3) per PFF.
So when did the switch flip for Foles? It’s pretty easy to connect the dots and see that the Eagles’ bye week during Wildcard weekend gave them extra time to tailor the offense to Foles’ skill set.
Now, it’s Tampa’s turn to do the same. Except instead of just 14 days, they have an entire training camp and preseason to shape the offense around Fitzpatrick and what he does best.
The Bucs would be wise to go back and review the tape of Fitzpatrick’s 2010 and 2015 seasons. Those were by far and away his best years in the NFL and a lot of his success was attributed to the system Chan Gailey ran in both Buffalo and New York.
It’s a pretty simple concept, really.
There are a lot of similarities between both Winston and Fitzpatrick’s approach to the game. Both are gunslingers that can run when needed. The most glaring difference would be overall talent, but Fitzpatrick makes up for that with experience. At this point, he is more than a game manager, but it is also not the type of quarterback that is going to win games on his own.
The difference this year is that the Bucs will have a healthy offense - barring any setbacks in training camp - that has been upgraded in two key areas that are certain to benefit Fitzpatrick’s game. A second year in the system along with the familiarity of playing with the starters will continue to render him effective.
Bringing in Ryan Jensen and drafting Ronald Jones gives Fitzpatrick more players to rely on so he doesn’t have to shoulder the load as much as he did last season. And if the defense plays close to the level they did against the Jets and Miami, then Tampa should come out of the first three weeks in good shape.
Plus outside of the Fitzpatrick factor, how many teams win with average or below average quarterbacks, anyway? The Titans, Bills, Jaguars, and Panthers all made the playoffs last season with quarterbacks who finished with in the bottom half of the league in quarterback rating.
I’m not naïve, I get it. The Titans, Jags, and Panthers had defenses that helped make up for the lack of quarterback play, but the Bills were ranked 26th overall in total defense. Tyrod Taylor finished the season with a 89.2 rating even though he threw just 14 touchdowns in 15 games.
If Tampa Bay improves on the field as they have on paper, then it’s not unrealistic to believe that the Bucs could win not just one, but two of these games.
Tampa is 2-0 in season openers under Dirk Koetter and while it seems that Wentz is on the track to return by the start of the season, you never know what can happen after tearing an ACL. The Steelers have been known to drop winnable games early in the season over the years and will have to play a hyped Bucs team at home on Monday Night Football. That is a common recipe for an upset in the NFL.
The worst-case scenario is that Tampa starts off 0-3, but I really don’t think that’s going to happen. Even a 1-2 start wouldn’t be too terrible, especially if the win is against New Orleans. The Bucs square off with Chicago in week four and then the following bye should give the Bucs time to catch their breath.
A likely win against the Bears puts Tampa at a possible 2-2 on the season, which would be great considering the circumstances. Things would certainly lighten up as they begin the easier stretch of their schedule in week six, too.
The bottom line is that Fitzpatrick is a smart, capable, and effective player who can lead a team to victory when needed.
And he is needed now more than ever in Tampa Bay.