CINCINNATI — Dirk Koetter almost went to the bullpen sooner. Jameis Winston had already thrown two of his four interceptions and trailed 21-0 to the Bengals when the Bucs head coach first considered benching his erratic starter.
Then Winston made a beautifully arcing 60-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson.
"Yeah. I did. I did,'' Koetter said when asked if he almost yanked Winston sooner. "But it worked out the way it worked out. He threw that long touchdown to DeSean so we made it a little bit longer.''
And right there is the reason why Winston could get Koetter and everyone else fired.
With Winston, there is always this glimmer of hope right before it feels hopeless.
There is the enormous investment the franchise has made in Winston and the return the Bucs owners stubbornly insist on getting for it.
Koetter waited too long to bench Winston in Sunday's 37-34 loss to the Bengals.
He waited until Winston threw a pick-six that safety Jessie Bates returned 21 yards for a touchdown and a 34-16 lead with just over two minutes left in the third quarter.
"It was very humbling,'' Winston said of the benching. "But it's not about me. It's my fault that we were in that position.''
Winston is wrong. It is about him.
Everything. It always has been.
The season. Whether Koetter or general manager Jason Licht have a job in 2019. Everything.
By now, you know that there was some more Fitz-magic left in the arm of the 35-year-old backup Ryan Fitzpatrick.
He rallied the Bucs to 18 unanswered points and an improbable comeback with touchdown passes to Mike Evans and O.J. Howard. His two-point conversion pass to Chris Godwin made it 34-34 with 1:05 to play.
Unfortunately, it was enough time for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and A.J. Green to play catch and set up Randy Bullock's 44-yard field goal as time expired.
Now Koetter has a big decision to make. That is, if he's the one making it.
Bench Winston, go back to Fitzpatrick and try to salvage enough wins to keep his job or keep playing the turnover machine that will cost him one.
"Yeah, we don't need to talk about it,'' Koetter said. "I mean today is not the day I need to decide that, right? I don't have any problem making decisions and I'll make it when the time is right. But now is not the right time to make it.''
What a horrible position Winston has put this franchise in.
The Bucs had a club record 576 yards Sunday. Think about that. They have the NFL's most potent offense. The league's best passing game. An arsenal of receivers and play-makers. They could clean the carpet with most teams but Winston keeps kicking out the plug.
There were two alarming things that were true about Winston when he came out of Florida State with a Heisman Trophy and a national championship. He didn't protect the football and he was accused of sexual assaulting a woman.
Well, the turnovers haven't stopped. Winston had 11 interceptions all of last season. This year, he has 10 in three and a half games. And Winston's three-game suspension by the NFL for assaulting a female Arizona Uber driver put the Bucs in a bad position as well.
There will be excuses. It was a windy day and the ball sailed on him. Somebody ran the wrong route.
"Yeah, it was a very windy day,'' Koetter said. "It wasn't the easiest day to throw it. Two of the four, the ball was just overthrown.''
But Winston wasn't creating any alibis for himself Sunday.
"I can't find a common factor,'' Winston said of the interceptions. "My main thing right now is finding a solution to eliminate them. I know I'm definitely the reason we came up short in this game and I own that. And I have to fix it. There's not much that I can really say.''
The Winston situation is so bad that before the game, there was a report that DeSean Jackson requested to be traded before Tuesday's 4 p.m. deadline. Koetter said he knew nothing about it. Licht didn't deny the report, but said Jackson isn't going anywhere.
It's pretty obvious Jackson doesn't think Winston can get the ball to him. Outside of that pass, Jackson had two targets and no catches with Winston in the game.
In the Bucs locker room after the game, a player let out a profanity-laced, primal scream about losing that was picked up on the radio broadcast.
Koetter spoke just above a whisper. The Bucs are 3-4 and the season could be over by the time they get home from Carolina next Sunday.
But if Koetter benches Winston, that's it. They can't go back and forth. The club misses out on nine more opportunities to see if their investment can pay off. If he sticks with Winston, the rest of the team knows it's not about playing the guy that gives them the best chance to beat the Panthers.
Winston believes he deserves to play.
"Every time I go out there I feel like I give the team the best chance to win,'' Winston said. "But I have to back that up. I know who I am. I know who I am as a player, I just have to execute.
"I fear nothing but God. I just know I have to fix this problem and I will. It doesn't come with being scared. It comes with looking in the mirror, taking a long, hard deep look at myself and bouncing back from this. And I know I will.''
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLStroud