Bucs still don’t know when Jameis Winston will throw another pass that matters

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) greets teammates at the door to the locker room before an NFL game between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017. (Times file)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) greets teammates at the door to the locker room before an NFL game between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017. (Times file)
Published June 15 2018

TAMPA — The last pass thrown by Jameis Winston in a regular-season game was his best. The perfectly arced, 39-yard strike to Chris Godwin for a touchdown with nine seconds left gave the Bucs a 31-24 win over New Orleans at Raymond James Stadium on New Year's Eve.

But one big question looms for the Bucs entering summer break: how long before Winston throws another pass in a game that matters?

The NFL's investigation into an allegation that Winston groped a 26-year-old female Uber driver has entered its eighth month.

"This remains under review,'' NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said of the Winston probe.

In six weeks, the Bucs report to training camp, and they still may not know whether Winston faces any disciplinary action under the league's personal conduct policy.

Winston has denied any wrongdoing. The driver, identified only as "Kate" in a Buzzfeed article that broke the news, said that on March 13, 2016, in Scottsdale, Ariz., Winston "reached over and he just grabbed my crotch." She said he kept his hand there for three to five seconds and removed it only after she said, "What's up with that?"

She reported the incident the next day to Uber, which informed Winston that his account was suspended.

Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby, Winston's teammate at Florida State, has said he was with Winston in the car that night and nothing happened.

Winston won't comment on the investigation.

"I do everything in this community and for this football team that I possibly can to get better," he said.

Even without criminal or civil action — neither of which has been taken — Winston can face discipline from the league because the personal conduct policy is so broad.

"It is not enough to simply avoid being found guilty of a crime," the policy reads. "We are all held to a higher standard and must conduct ourselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the values of the NFL and is lawful."

It also says "conduct by anyone in the league that is illegal, violent, dangerous or irresponsible puts innocent victims at risk, damages the reputation of others in the game and support for the NFL."

The Bucs have to be prepared for any outcome. Their hope is that the NFL concludes Winston did nothing wrong and no disciplinary action is required. But they also have to prepare for the possibility Winston is suspended.

Needless to say, after a 5-11 season in 2017, the stakes are high. The future of coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht may hang in the balance.

A suspension would have implications for the possible rotation of quarterbacks in training camp and the preseason. It may change the game plan against what promises to be a tough schedule of September opponents.

In some ways, the Bucs' preparations for this began in March with the re-signing of 35-year-old quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who went 2-1 as a starter last season.

The Bucs believe Fitzpatrick will be the best quarterback to potentially get them through a gauntlet of early games: at New Orleans on Sept. 9, home against the Super Bowl champion Eagles on Sept. 16 and vs. Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football at Raymond James on Sept. 24.

Depending on the length, a suspension could have implications for how the Bucs approach training and the preseason.

How do you split the reps with the starting offense at the quarterback position? Typically, Winston would take all of them with the No. 1 unit.

The preseason could look different, too. The starting quarterback often plays into the third quarter of the third preseason game. But if Winston were going to miss more than one game, the Bucs may consider giving those reps to Fitzpatrick.

What about the final preseason game, when starters typically don't play? The Bucs may want to protect Fitzpatrick but play Winston, since it might be the most live action he will see for several weeks.

From a game-plan standpoint, the Bucs may have to rely more heavily on their defense and running game to control the football and the clock.

The default position is that the Bucs would treat any suspension like an injury. But psychologically, it would be a bigger blow. A suspension is a self-inflicted wound for off-field behavior.

The Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, has been almost parental in its loyalty to Winston. In May, co-chairman Joel Glazer called Winston, "a first-class individual, hard-working, wonderful in the community, a leader and everything that we would've hoped for in our quarterback."

But a lengthy suspension could affect how the Bucs view Winston's future. The Bucs have picked up his fifth-year option worth about $21 million. It's only guaranteed against injury. Without this cloud, the Bucs would look to potentially lock up Winston with a long-term contract following 2018.

Should the Bucs have another losing season, Winston's future with the team may be in jeopardy. At the very least, he could be playing for his third head coach in five years.

Winston has shown a rare ability to compartmentalize his off-field issues. He went through two investigations into allegations by Erica Kinsman of sexual assault while the two were students at Florida State and lost only one football game.

Other than the probe, this is the best time of Winston's life. He proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Breion Allen, who is expecting the couple's first child, a boy, in July. He unveiled his Dream Forever Foundation to help underprivileged kids.

"One of the things that we always talk about is who we are every single day," Winston said. "From day to day, despite your emotions or how you feel that day, you have to come with that same level of urgency every day in every position that's tough.

"But here, in this profession when the spotlight is on us all the time, we have to find a way to overcome any adversity we may be facing at home or even in that locker room and make sure that we're our best selves out here on this football field."

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