Will this be Jameis Winston’s last season in a Bucs uniform?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter, left, speaks with quarterback Jameis Winston (3) during the Dec. 18 game vs. Atlanta. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter, left, speaks with quarterback Jameis Winston (3) during the Dec. 18 game vs. Atlanta. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published June 23, 2018|Updated June 24, 2018

A t his introductory news conference after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Bucs in 2015, Jameis Winston said to judge him on his actions moving forward.

"Actions speak so much louder than words, or what they may have read or what they may have heard," Winston said. "It's about your actions. Whatever is in the past is in the past.

"I look forward to gaining everyone's trust."

That trust between the Bucs and Winston, not to mention Tampa Bay fans, has been tested by his impending three-game suspension from the NFL for violating the player conduct policy.

The league hasn't officially notified Winston or the Bucs of its decision following an eighth-month investigation into an accusation that he groped a female Uber driver in Arizona in March 2016.

The question that remains: Could this be Winston's last season with the Bucs?

RELATED: Winston investigation Q&A.

The steady drip, drip, drip of information surrounding the investigation isn't helping Winston. But the Bucs knew the risks of drafting him.

Winston knew he couldn't afford another accusation of this nature. He was accused of rape while at Florida State, and though he was never criminally charged, he settled a civil lawsuit with his accuser, Erica Kinsman of Zephyrhills, in December 2016.

He came into the NFL with two concerns: his off-field actions and an inability to protect the ball. After three seasons, not much has changed.

So what will the Bucs do now?

The 2018 season

Assuming Winston's suspension remains at three games, pursuant to him completing undisclosed requirements by the NFL, the Bucs will be glad to welcome him back for their Sept. 30 game at Chicago in Week 4.

Who knows what the Bucs' record will be at that point. Their first three games bring the toughest stretch of opponents on the schedule: at the Saints on Sept. 9, home against the Super Bowl champion Eagles on Sept. 16 and home against the Steelers on Monday Night Football on Sept. 24. Three defending division champions in three weeks.

For those games, the Bucs likely will lean on 35-year-old veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played well going 2-1 as a starter last season while Winston was injured. But beating the Jets and Dolphins isn't the same test as facing the Saints, Eagles and Steelers.

Trying to rebound from a 0-3 or 1-2 start won't be easy for the Bucs in the NFC South, where the other three teams made the playoffs in 2017.

Winston could go 7-6 or 8-5 when he returns as the starter and it still may not be enough to make the playoffs or save the jobs of coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht.

If the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, decides to fire either Koetter or Licht, a new coach or general manager may want a clean start with a new quarterback. A lot of assistants are in contract years, so much is on the line for them, too.

The contract

Winston is in the final year of his rookie deal. That money is guaranteed. He will lose about $125,000 in salary from a three-game suspension. The Bucs last month picked up his fifth-year option, which is worth nearly $21 million and guaranteed only against injury. If he passes a physical in March, the team could rescind it.

There's debate on whether a suspension would allow the Bucs to void that. They would need clarification from the NFL.

But assuming Winston plays well and continues to stay out of trouble, some Bucs officials don't believe the team would move away from him in 2018.
But Winston has won only 18 games in three seasons. That's not a good number. In 45 starts, he has thrown 69 touchdown passes and 44 interceptions, and has a career 87.2 passer rating. He'll need to do a better job of protecting the ball and to start winning more games.

Winston could argue that since March 2016, he has made better decisions off the field. His longtime girlfriend, Breion Allen, to whom he is engaged, is expecting the couple's first child in July. He started his Dream Forever Foundation to raise money for underprivileged youths.

The optics

The Glazers have always been very sensitive to their fans when making big decisions. They forced coach Greg Schiano to keep quarterback Josh Freeman when they hired him because they thought fans would jump ship if he didn't.

Winston hasn't seemed to be very forthright throughout the Uber investigation. When news of the allegation and NFL investigation broke in a story on the website BuzzFeed in November, Winston said, "The story falsely accuses me of making inappropriate contact with this driver. I believe the driver was confused as to the number of passengers in the car and who was sitting next to her.''

A week later, Winston's former FSU teammate and current Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby issued a statement saying he was in the back seat with Winston and nothing happened.

But Thursday, the NFL Network reported that Darby was not with Winston the entire time, which led the NFL to discount his statement. And Friday, ESPN reported that Winston also was in an Uber ride that night with Brandon Banks, a former Vanderbilt football player now serving a 15-year prison sentence for aggravated rape and sexual battery.

Banks, unnamed in the case by Winston and Darby months ago, is a friend of Darby's who was training in Arizona at the time. He rode with Winston and Banks in an Uber with a female driver to a club on the night in question, Banks' attorney, Mark Scruggs, told the Tampa Bay Times. Winston was in bad enough shape at the club that a second Uber was called to take him home, and he left in that car alone with another female driver, Scruggs said.

The NFL knew about Banks, but he refused to speak with the league from prison. Presumably, the Bucs have known about him, too. But Winston's statement appears at best misleading, and at worst not truthful. If the Bucs believe he lied to them, how could they trust him with $20 million?

Winston's actions have spoken loudly. And they have put his future with the Bucs in jeopardy.