TAMPA — Jameis Winston did this to himself. It's not just the interceptions. It's not how reckless he is with the football or the 2-12 record in his last 14 games.
The reason Winston was benched can be traced back to his off-field behavior, which led to a three-game suspension, which has created this mess.
When they do the autopsy of the 2018 Bucs season, when they drill down to the root of the problem, it began with the NFL finding Winston in violation of the player conduct policy for by touching a female Uber driver in Arizona in 2016 "in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent."
Ever since then, planet Winston titled slightly off its axis.
Football players are creatures of habit. So are football teams.
As soon as Winston's suspension came down, the Bucs made sure the mural of his face did not go up on Raymond James Stadium. His likeness and name wasn't used in any marketing materials.
It was a harbinger of things to come. When he arrived at training camp, he discovered that coach Dirk Koetter planned to give all the first-team reps to Ryan Fitzpatrick. Winston would have to learn to "lead from behind," Koetter said. While Fitzpatrick was sharpening his chemistry with Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries, Winston spent the majority of his time throwing to Freddie Martino and rookie Justin Watson.
No big deal? Winston had an outstanding training camp and preseason. In fact, he looked as sharp as he ever has, going 30-of-41 passing (73.2 percent) for 388 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Ah, but then the suspension hit.
Winston did not play the final preseason game. Smart, because why risk injury? But it added another week before he could play in a football of any kind.
So what did he do? Winston is a hard worker. He gathered coaches and a couple dozen unsigned players to work out each day at a youth league complex. He tried to simulate the Bucs workout regimen. He had meetings, film study and catered meals.
But it wasn't the NFL. In terms of preparation, it was some dudes tossing the football around.
And what happened while he was gone? Fitz-magic. Ryan Fitzpatrick didn't just play well, he passed for 400 yards in each of the first three games, an NFL record. He beat the Saints in New Orleans, 48-40, tying a club record for points in a game.
He upset the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles. Then on Monday night, despite three interceptions on consecutive plays in the first half, he nearly brought the Bucs back before losing 30-27.
Who can forget the post-game press conference following the Eagles game, when Fitzpatrick wore DeSean Jackson's jewelry and jacket? The fun was back. Bucs fans wore beards to the games.
Here's the thing about professional sports: You don't let another man do your job, because he might do it better than you.
Had Fitzpatrick been the No. 2 quarterback all season and Winston played just okay, getting the Bucs off to a 3-4 start, he's probably not being benched after the four-interception game at Cincinnati. Instead, the Bucs had the film and reason to believe Fitzpatrick gave them a better option.
This was not the year for Winston to add stress to Koetter and general manager Jason Licht. These guys are on the hot seat. They're playing for their W-2s.
An NFL quarterback, especially one drafted No. 1 overall, carries the future of at least 20 coaches and their families in his right hand. Owners want to see a return on their investment. Fast. The Titans' Marcus Mariota is on his third head coach since being drafted No. 2 overall after Winston in 2015. Winston has had Lovie Smith and Koetter.
Koetter doesn't have the luxury of waiting for Winston to "fix it'' as the Bucs quarterback said he would do over and over again last Sunday.
"If I knew exactly why, I'd try to do everything I could to fix it and we wouldn't be where we're at right now,'' Koetter said. "So, it's just become a little too much of a trend and when it becomes that much of a trend and that's the main thing holding us back right now — and we have plenty of other issues, including coaching — we just can't lose the turnover battle 7-0 the last two games and expect to win.''
And make no mistake, Koetter and the Bucs have to win, starting Sunday.
There's a certain air of entitlement to the way Winston plays quarterback. He's never been benched for something other than a disciplinary reason in his life until this week. So when have there been consequences for not protecting the football?
Koetter doesn't think there's much evidence to support an argument that the three-game suspension hurt Winston.
"Jameis played outstanding in the preseason and there's just no way. … that would just be speculation on anybody that wants to comment on that," he said.
But listen to Winston, who admits the interruption was difficult.
"Well, it's a tough transition, I would say that,'' Winston said. "But out there on the field, when you've got guys like this around you, guys you can throw the ball to really any time, it's just me protecting the football, and that's all I definitely worked really hard on this offseason, and I think that I was playing pretty well for the most part, but I just can't turn the ball over.''
That last part everyone can agree on.
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud