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  1. Bucs

Clap if you believe in franchise QBs (and Jameis Winston)

Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston (3) returned to practice Wednesday. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Sep. 26, 2018

TAMPA — It's hard to think clearly when the pixie dust is falling.

There were still light flurries Tuesday morning when Jameis Winston, after three weeks of suspension, punctuated by his endless private practices (the guy has always been a sled dog), walked into Bucs headquarters.

"I got here around 5:30," Winston said.

Back to work. Back to hugs and smiles.

"It felt like home," Winston said Wednesday.

But back to his starting job?

Not so fast.

Winston is the starting quarterback. He is the future. That's the reality. Look, I wouldn't have drafted him. The Bucs did. I wouldn't have kept him after his latest off-field debacle. The Bucs did. He plays. Right?

But pixie dust is falling. Ryan Fitzpatrick, even after losing his first game, remains the man. Winston, for the first time in his football career, might need to wait his turn, including Sunday in Chicago.

Oh, well. He did do this to himself.

Leave it to the Bucs to be 2-1, unexpectedly successful, but in a pickle. There are 1,230 reasons to stick with Fitz, one for each yard he has thrown for this season, to go with 11 TDs and a 70.3 completion percentage.

Not that the Bears care who they go up against, since they have Khalil Mack (thanks, Chucky!). But it's where the Bucs are at that matters now, and we're not sure.

Everyone is FitzGiddy over the three 400-yard games. But, understand: Fitzpatrick basically threw away the Monday night game in the first half with three interceptions before piling up second-half numbers against a gassed Steelers defense. Those interceptions? That's Fitzpatrick, too. That's why he can't keep a starting job in this league.

There is no way the Bucs can let this go on much longer. Winston needs to be the starter no later than the Falcons game (Oct. 14) after the bye. Tell Winston and Fitzpatrick that now. Tell the rest of us, too. Who cares about the Bears. Think they were shooting Winston's workouts at Skyway Park?

You accomplish two things by doing that. It eliminates any question about your future plans. You know a 35-year-old journeyman isn't your future. You have Winston and you have this time to determine if you're fully committed to him and he's fully committed to you.

That should have been made clear from the start. Where was the Bucs leadership? What was the plan before the season, anyway? If Fitz could steal us a win or two. Well, he stole two. You pat him on the back, say thanks, and go back to Winston. Fitzpatrick would understand the deal. Smart guy. Nick Foles understood, and he was Super Bowl MVP. (Now if only Winston was Carson Wentz.)

It's on the Bucs, really. Someone has to keep an eye on next year and the year after. Head coach Dirk Koetter shouldn't be expected to do that. His neck is on the line. Bucs GM Jason Licht, who actually has a new contract, should make the call. Not that he will. I get the whole idea of sitting in a room and deciding who gives you the best chance on Sunday. I'd vote Fitz at the moment. But one of the GM's jobs is to know who the starter is next year, and the year after that.

The message should be direct, logical. This is our franchise quarterback. Maybe sit him for a week, but he's healthy, so we're putting him back in.

It's amazing how years of losing will shake the logic out of you.

Fitzpatrick has captured imaginations, even in the second half Monday. If the Steelers had outright pounded the Bucs, would we even be talking about this? Winston would be back in at Chicago. What if Winston had gone out and thrown three picks in the first half against Pittsburgh? He'd be torn to pieces.

Fitzpatrick has been a savior. Think 49ers GM and former Bucs great John Lynch doesn't wish he had a Fitzpatrick about now, with Jimmy Garoppolo out for the year? If Winston returns and plays well, I'd ship Fitz for a third- or fourth-rounder.

The problem is the Fitz and pixie dust. What if the Bucs beat the Bears to go to 3-1? Boy, are they in trouble.

Jameis Winston is back, and he needs to be the starting quarterback sooner or later. Now, would someone please remind Ryan Fitzpatrick? Bring an umbrella for the pixie dust.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029.

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