TAMPA — Dirk Koetter was on vacation this summer when he got the call from general manager Jason Licht informing him that quarterback Jameis Winston would be suspended for the first three games of the season for violating the league's player conduct policy.
The first thing Koetter did was take a look at the Bucs' schedule.
"I saw that Pittsburgh was our third game on a Monday night," Koetter said. "Chicago was our fourth game on the road, short week. So in the back of mind from that point on, I kind of had it in my head that (Ryan) Fitz(patrick) would start the first four games and Jameis would start in Atlanta (after the bye week) unless we were either playing lights out in a good way, or lights out like we did (Sunday) in a bad way."
One day after watching his team get embarrassed 48-10 at Chicago, Koetter announced that Winston would be the starting quarterback at Atlanta on Oct. 14 and beyond. Way beyond.
"Jameis Winston is the guy who's going to be here way longer than I am," Koetter said. "So, he needs to be out there playing and he will be unless he gets hurt."
That's an acknowledgement that despite Winston's off-field troubles — he was suspended for groping an Arizona Uber driver in March 2016 — he is still highly regarded by ownership. The team has picked up Winston's fifth-year option, which is guaranteed only against injury and would pay him close to $21 million in 2019.
Winston looked rusty after starting the second half against the Bears, going 16-of-20 passing for 145 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
"I think you see some plays where Jameis looked very sharp as far as running the offense, getting us in and out of the huddle," Koetter said.
And then, Koetter said, there were plays like "that out route to DeSean (Jackson), right in front of our bench, where Jameis is going to hit that 99 times out of 100. And he didn't just miss it by a little, he missed it by a lot and … that's one of the benefits of him playing (Sunday) instead of it possibly happening in Atlanta. Because as much as we try to make practice at game speed, it's not game speed."
Koetter informed both quarterbacks of his decision Monday. Despite Fitzpatrick throwing for more than 400 yards and at least three touchdowns in the first three games, he was never going to win a quarterback debate over Winston. Winston is 24 and a former first overall pick. Fitzpatrick is 35 and on his seventh NFL team in 14 seasons.
Fitzpatrick, who got the Bucs off to a rousing 2-0 start and was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week after both games, threw three interceptions and saw his rally fall short in a 30-27 loss to Pittsburgh. On Sunday, he struggled against the Bears defense, going 9 of 18 passing for 126 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
"We brought Fitz here two years ago to be a mentor for Jameis and to be a guy that could fill in if Jameis was out for injury," Koetter said. "Both times we've asked Fitz to fill in, for a three-game stretch last year, he went 2-1. For a four-game stretch this year, and when I said he went — he led us to 2-1 a year ago and he led us to 2-2 this year. So, job well done. In fact, excellent. I think any team in the league would take that."
Just the same, Fitzpatrick said he was disappointed even if he anticipated the decision.
"It's not something I necessarily wanted to hear just in terms of getting that taste back, that feeling of being out there and having fun and enjoying myself kind of creating some momentum at the beginning of the season with the guys," he said. "But Jameis is back and Jameis is the guy. He's the face of the franchise."
Fitzpatrick said he felt like he would have to be the best player in the NFL or eventually he would lose his starting job.
"What I said to my dad after the Week 1 win and Week 2 and Week 3, … was I'm either going to win the NFL MVP this year or I'll be back on the bench at some point. That's just the reality of the situation."