The next time you see Jameis Winston in an NFL game could be Sept. 30 at Chicago

Jameis Winston leaves the field after a preseason NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans Saturday. [AP Photo/James Kenney]
Jameis Winston leaves the field after a preseason NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans Saturday. [AP Photo/James Kenney]
Published August 25 2018
Updated August 25 2018

TAMPA — That's a wrap for Jameis Winston. You won't see him on an NFL field again for at least 37 days. Thanks for coming, and drive safely.

We knew the Bucs quarterback was suspended for the first three games of the regular season. Now we learn he won't play in Thursday's preseason finale against the Jaguars at Raymond James Stadium, either.

Saturday, coach Dirk Koetter announced the obvious and only decision he could make.

Though Winston will essentially miss four weeks of football, including practice, when he leaves to serve his suspension sometime after Thursday's game, playing him behind a third- and fourth-team offensive line against the Jags would have invited catastrophe.

So Winston will get three more days of practice, a walk-through and extra time to pack his bags.

Then he will be exiled, NFL style, unable to have any contact with members of the organization.

Assuming he returns in shape on a short week following a Monday night game against the Steelers on Sept. 24, the next time Winston could play in an NFL game could be at Chicago on Sept. 30.

If Winston proved anything this preseason, it's this: The Bucs are going to miss him even more than expected.

As a quarterback, on the field and in the meeting rooms, Winston has improved dramatically.

Winston had the best preseason of his career. He finished 30 of 41 passing for 388 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in appearances in three games. His 126.9 passer rating is the highest in the NFL among quarterbacks who have attempted at least 25 passes this preseason. (No. 2 is Bucs backup Ryan Griffin at 113.8.)

Considering that Winston did it by throwing mostly to second- and third-team receivers is even more impressive.

"I think performance-wise, you'd have to give Jameis an 'A' for the preseason," Koetter said. "I don't think anybody in their right mind wouldn't say that wasn't an 'A' performance on his part. I think he handled it well. I think he performed very well. He did a really good job of working on things he needed to work on.

"The situation is what it is. I wish it wasn't that way, but it is. We're going to miss him when he's gone, and we'll be glad when he's back."

Winston was suspended for violating the NFL's player conduct policy. After an eight-month investigation, the league determined that Winston touched a female Uber driver in Arizona "in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent" in March 2016.

He hurt himself, and now he's about to hurt his team by leaving.

No. 1 backup Ryan Fitzpatrick, who will start in Winston's place, has had a solid but unspectacular preseason. He is 17 of 28 passing for 183 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. His 79.9 passer rating is just meh.

At 35, he's a very smart and capable backup. But it's probably unrealistic to think he can go 2-1 or 3-0 at the Saints, versus the Eagles in the home opener and against the Steelers on Monday Night Football at Raymond James Stadium.

Before Winston leaves for his self-inflicted hiatus, let's consider what he has accomplished this preseason. He has learned how to make guys around him better. That's what good quarterbacks do. It's the by-product of not being given many reps with the No. 1 offense.

"I think Jameis has always been good about helping guys learn, the fact that he'll always stay out there and work with anybody," Koetter said. "He just happens also that he's taken it one step further to being forced to work with them in practice. I think that's definitely been good for those guys, but I also think part of that is good for Jameis."

The other thing Winston has improved on is ball security. Winston, Fitzpatrick and Griffin have not had a turnover in the preseason. Though Winston got away with an ill-advised pass under pressure at Tennessee in the second preseason game that resulted in a touchdown, he has kept two hands on the ball when leaving the pocket.

"He's done a nice job of it," Koetter said. " You can really see him moving in the pocket, keeping two hands on the ball. When he does either step up or … run, he's just doing a good job of protecting it. ''

Finally, Winston has learned how less of him can be more. The Bucs asked him to lead from behind. They have taught him the difference between emotion and passion. Gone are the pregame high jinks. No W's were eaten. There were no rhymes without reason.

Even when he threw a touchdown pass, like the fade to Chris Godwin against the Lions on Friday night, Winston just smiled and patted his receiver on the helmet. It was a little weird, like watching Robin Williams in a serious acting role, but you wind up appreciating his talent even more.

From here on out, the Bucs' focus will be preparing for the Saints. They have about five or six roster spots to determine, and that is what the fourth preseason game is for. But at least 25 to 30 starters and key backups won't be in uniform Thursday, including Winston.

It's time for the Bucs to dial in and get ready for the regular season. It's almost time for Winston to leave the building.

What a shame.

"I think Jameis has done everything asked of him under the situation that he's facing right now," Koetter said.