TAMPA — It was a night when the Bucs brought their old coach back to town.
Turns out, there was a bigger return. Tampa Bay got its quarterback back.
Why, hello there, Jameis. Welcome back. Just in time to save the current coach’s job.
Dirk Koetter is hanging on by his fingernails. But if he still has the puncher’s chance at returning, Monday helped his cause.
First the first time in a long time, the Koetter-Winston ticket looked convincing.
Flashback to Monday night:
It was late third quarter. The Bucs trailed by a field goal. They had the ball at their own 23.
Winston dropped back and searched for a receiver. A couple might have barely been open, but the throws would have been risky. Winston bounced out of the pocket, still looking for someone. Suddenly, he realized the whole right side of the field was clear. So he tucked the ball under this right shoulder and scrambled 13 yards and out of bounds for a first down.
It was a safe play, but a smart play. A productive play. And he made those kind of decisions all night long. Which is why Winston had the best game of his career.
Playing behind a patched up offensive line, Winston watched one weapon after another go down. Doug Martin was benched for violating team rules. DeSean Jackson got hurt. O.J. Howard got hurt. Cam Brate was out for a spell.
And what did Winston do? He posted a quarterback rating of 130.5 — the second-best game of his nearly three NFL seasons.
He threw 35 passes. He had 27 completions, many into tight windows. He threw long and short. He showed finesse and touch. He showed power and precision.
He completed passes to 11 targets, including names like Freddie Martino, Antony Auclair and Alan Cross. He threw deep passes that produced points and short passes that avoided turnovers. Except for one pass that almost got Brate decapitated, he didn’t make one throw where you yelled, "What was he thinking?!"
Of all the numbers he put up, the most impressive was zero. As in zero turnovers.
You see, this is what it’s supposed to look like.
When the Glazers fired Lovie Smith and promoted Koetter from offensive coordinator to head coach two seasons ago, they dreamed of nights such as Monday when the coach and the quarterback were in perfect synch. They envisioned a game when Winston guided the Bucs up and down the field, converting half the team’s third downs and giving the Bucs a chance to win against one of the NFL’s better teams.
The Bucs scored only 21 points, but take away a Peyton Barber fumble inside the Atlanta 5 and shift Patrick Murray’s last-second field goal attempt over a few feet and the Bucs would have put 31 on the scoreboard. That’ll work most weeks.
"This (was) Jameis Winston at his best,’’ Koetter said. "We’ve seen him at this best for parts of several games, but this was probably his best and most complete game.’’
For one night, Winston looked he belonged with the other NFC South quarterbacks, stars such as Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees.
"I think Jameis, with more experience, is going to be right there with them,’’ Koetter said.
If Winston had played most of this season like he played Monday, we wouldn’t be talking about people getting fired.
Which leads us to this question: Why haven’t we seen more of this?
Maybe some of it can be chalked up to Winston’s injured shoulder. Maybe some of it can be blamed on dumb mistakes that 23-year-olds will make.
And, some can be blamed on Winston’s gunslinger mentality. He sees rewards instead of risks, leading to interceptions. He sees opportunity instead of obstacles, leading to fumbles. He sees hope instead of hazards, leading to bone-headed plays that cost you games. And jobs.
Maybe it was just a flash-in-the-pan game, but it does give you pause. Is there still a chance the Koetter-Winston combo could work? Should Koetter stick around?
Put it this way: it gives us something to watch for the next two weeks. And, possibly, beyond.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.