TAMPA — The Bucs will open the upcoming season without the face of their franchise, as quarterback Jameis Winston will be suspended three games by the NFL for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
Winston, 24, was accused of groping a female Uber driver in Arizona in March 2016, something he had denied since the allegations came forward in November. An eight-month investigation by the league resulted in the suspension, which could be extended if he doesn't complete undisclosed requirements.
While there is a general understanding of the NFL's decision, the league had not officially notified Winston, his representatives or the Bucs as of Thursday evening. It could be formally announced as early as Friday morning.
While suspended, Winston must stay away from all team activities. He will be allowed to participate in training camp and all four preseason games.
No criminal or civil complaint was pursued by the alleged victim, who has remained anonymous but said she was inspired to come forward by the #MeToo movement.
Winston's suspension is a crushing blow for the Bucs. Head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht already were beginning the season on the hot seat after a 5-11 record in 2017. Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who went 2-1 as a starter last season when Winston was sidelined with a shoulder injury, is expected to step in during his suspension.
The Bucs will be without Winston for three of their toughest games of the season, all against defending division champions. Winston will miss the season opener Sept. 9 at New Orleans, the Bucs' home opener Sept. 16 against defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia and a Monday Night Football game Sept. 24 at Raymond James Stadium against Pittsburgh.
Because of the suspension, Winston would play only one home game in the first nine weeks of the season, with four of his first five games after the suspension coming on the road. He would be eligible to make his season debut Sept. 30 when the Bucs play at Chicago.
The suspension won't hit Winston hard financially, as his base salary for 2018 is just $705,000, so he loses just $124,411. He is due to make $20.9 million in 2019, so the same suspension would cost him about $3.7 million if appeals pushed it to next season.
Winston has maintained his innocence, saying he was in the back seat during the ride that included two other passengers. One of them was Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby, his Florida State teammate, who said he was seated next to Winston and nothing happened. The third passenger was never identified by Winston or his representatives.
The NFL apparently gave more weight to the contemporaneous complaint, filed the next day by the driver with Uber, and other correspondence and testimony about the incident.
This is the first time Winston's off-field actions have impacted his NFL career.
It was an allegation of sexual assault that prompted Winston to settle a civil lawsuit with Erica Kinsman, who said she was raped in 2012 when the two were students at Florida State. Winston was never charged after a probe by the State Attorney's Office and a Title IX investigation. Also while Winston was at FSU, a second woman met with its victim's advocate program regarding a sexual encounter with the quarterback. The case was never reported to police.
Winston was suspended for a game against Clemson in 2014 for making offensive and vulgar comments about female anatomy on campus.
Throughout the Bucs' vetting process, Winston faced questions about his character, ranging from the crab legs he carried out of a Publix supermarket without paying for them in Tallahassee to the time he was suspended for shouting a vulgarity on campus. Even so, the Bucs still drafted Winston with the No. 1 overall pick in 2015.
The alleged incident took place in March 2016, just months after Winston's rookie season with the Bucs. According to a BuzzFeed News report, Winston had spent the day attending Kurt Warner's football camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., when he used his Uber account to arrange transportation around 2 a.m.
The woman, identified only as Kate in the report, told BuzzFeed that a group of men excitedly told her she would be driving someone famous that night: Winston, the Bucs quarterback and 2013 Heisman Trophy winner.
The woman said Winston was placed in the front passenger seat and that he was the only one she drove that night. "I started driving, and right away, Jameis behaved poorly," she said, claiming he shouted homophobic slurs at pedestrians.
She said Winston wanted food and while waiting in line at the drive-thru of Los Betos Mexican Food, "he reached over and he just grabbed my crotch," Kate said. Winston held his hand there for three to five seconds, according to the woman, removing it only after she looked up in shock and said "What's up with that?"
"I wasn't just creeped out," she said. "I was frozen. I mean he's an NFL quarterback and I'm 5 foot 6. I'm not prepared for that. So I completely froze," she said, worried that she might provoke an unwanted reaction.
Winston has declined to discuss the allegations publicly since he was informed of the investigation by the NFL last November. But in his statement released at the time, he said he regretted if his "demeanor or presence made her uncomfortable in any way."
Winston, who has been active in the Tampa Bay community with fundraisers for his Dream Forever Foundation and annual youth football camps, won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship during his career at Florida State. He became the youngest player to pass for 4,000 yards as a rookie in 2015, was named to the NFC Pro Bowl team as a replacement and selected Pepsi Rookie of the Year in a poll of fan voting.
He has passed for 11,636 yards with 69 touchdowns and 44 interceptions in his three seasons with the Bucs. Winston has had one winning season at Tampa Bay. The 2016 Bucs were 9-7 and failed to reach the playoffs. Winston is 18-27 as starter. Last season, he played three games with a right shoulder sprain and missed three others due to the injury as the Bucs finished 5-11.