TAMPA — With the playoffs pretty much out of reach, the Bucs have retreated into the most comfortable of cocoons: Take it one game at a time. Finish strong. Focus on beating Green Bay at storied Lambeau Field on Sunday.
A shot in the arm came Wednesday when coach Dirk Koetter said that quarterback Jameis Winston will start against the Packers after missing the past three games with a shoulder injury.
Winston practiced and showed signs of rust, but the rest has helped him.
"He took the majority of the reps out there," Koetter said. "Threw the football fine. His arm strength was fine. I don’t think any guy who plays a skill position like that where timing is involved is going to take three weeks off and be perfect on the first day."
Winston’s return boosted his teammates.
"It’s going to be great," receiver DeSean Jackson said. "We missed that guy out there the past couple games."
But even sunny days have clouds. The Bucs were forced to place center Ali Marpet and tackle Demar Dotson on injured reserve, both with knee injuries sustained in Sunday’s 34-20 loss at Atlanta.
"It’s disappointing that you take two guys that were playing well on a team that needs more consistent play and they’re out," Koetter said.
Losing arguably their two best offensive linemen as their starting quarterback returns serves to create only more questions about the Bucs’ final five games.
Will the rash of injuries serve as a legitimate excuse for the disappointment in 2017?
And does it make less sense to risk further injury to Winston by playing him behind a suddenly suspect offensive line?
For starters, in the NFL, nobody cares who is injured.
The most winnable game left on the Bucs’ schedule might be against the Packers, who are 1-4 since quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down and out with a broken collarbone.
When Koetter meets with the Glazer family to make his case for why the owners should bring him back in 2018, chances are he won’t take a weekly injury report. If he did, the only thing to point to would be the 0-4 mark after Winston was hurt in the second quarter at Arizona in Week 6 and before he was taken out of the lineup to heal.
But Winston’s injury wasn’t season-ending. You can question the wisdom of not playing backup Ryan Fitzpatrick sooner — Winston played 2½ games before reinjuring the shoulder and being sidelined — but Winston has missed only three full games, not 13.
The Glazers — like the fans, players and coaching staff — had enormous expectations going into the season. When you’re taking on water in the ocean, it doesn’t matter what caused the leak.
On Wednesday, upon learning the news about Marpet and Dotson, some Bucs fans took to social media to say the only reason Winston is playing is to save Koetter’s job.
A few things about that. Since when is a team’s won-loss record a good reason to shut down its stars?
If you believe Winston is too valuable to play for the final five weeks of the regular season, where do you draw the line? What about Jackson, Mike Evans, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate, Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander or Gerald McCoy?
"When I took a poll, it was 45,000 to 38,995 in favor," Koetter said jokingly.
"It’s a league where, when you’re healthy, you play. Again, the risk factor, that’s there every week at every position. So when your medical staff clears any player for any injury to play … if a player is at no more risk than whatever the normal risk is — and in the NFL, that’s substantial — then they’re going to play. That’s what they’re paid to do."
The NFL is part of the entertainment business. The networks paid enormous rights fees to televise games and fans buy tickets expecting to watch the best players play.
The timing of Winston’s return could be better, considering the injuries to Marpet and Dotson. But the show goes on, and the stars must take the stage.