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Bucs go to work without Jameis Winston. ‘It was a little bit strange,’ coach Dirk Koetter says

For the first time in nearly four years, the Bucs began preparing Monday for the season opener without QB Jameis Winston, who began serving a three-game suspension
Published Sep. 3, 2018
Updated Sep. 3, 2018

It hit Mike Evans when he pulled his car into the AdventHealth Training Center on Monday morning and the parking space next to him was empty.

"We park by each other and I forgot he was going to be gone this week and he just wasn't there and I pulled right in and I just thought about, man, he's going to be gone these three weeks," Evans said. "It'll be tough. That's my boy, but he'll be back."

For the first time in more than three seasons, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston didn't come to work Monday and his absence was immediately felt by coaches and teammates as they began to prepare for Sunday's game at New Orleans.

Winston is serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's player conduct policy. An eight month investigation revealed that in March of 2016, Winston groped a female Uber driver in Arizona.

"It was a little bit (weird)," coach Dirk Koetter said. "I think I noticed it most when I went in the quarterback room when we broke down for individual meetings. It's been a long time since Jameis hasn't been camped  out in the front row next to his computer. It was a little bit strange but we knew this was coming. We planned for it and now we've just got to do it."

The plan is to start 35-year-old veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in Sunday's season opener against the Saints. Then the Bucs will host the Super Bowl champion Eagles in the home opener and the Steelers on Monday Night Football.

"It's different," tight end Cameron Brate said. "He's been the starting quarterback for three years now. Kind of miss him talking all practice and his leadership at the quarterback position. But Fitz is a vet. He's done it for over a decade. He's a great leader, too, and he kind of leads in his own way. We're excited to get going here with Fitz."

Whereas Winston is loud and animated on the field and in the meeting rooms, Fitzpatrick is much more laid back with a quick sense of humor.

"Cerebral. Obviously. Calm, cool, collected," quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian said of Fitzpatrick. "He's the type of guy people end up liking the first time they meet him. He's got a good sense of humor. He's dry with his wit. Being a Harvard  guy, that's  part of it. And obviously, he's been around the block."

Right tackle Demar Dotson said Winston's presence is felt by every employee at the Bucs' training facility.

"One thing I love about him most, not just as a football player, but the way he conducts himself around the building," Dotson said. "He'll go up to, let's just say the lawn guy, but he'll call him by their name. It might be Nate who pushes the trash can around here, and he's like, "what's up, Nate?" Where most people wouldn't know these people's names but he takes a family approach and calls people by their names. What can that do for someone like Nate, who can say, "Hey Jameis calls me by my name.' I respect him more for that than as a football player."

But it's the football player the Bucs will miss Sunday against the Saints. Fitzpatrick went 2-1 as a starter for Tampa Bay last season, beating the Jets and Dolphins before losing to Atlanta.

"That was probably the biggest difference for me," Bajakian said. "We've been out here on the field where he's been out or limited before. But the offensive meeting room, when that seat is empty, it almost feels like something is off."