TAMPA — This is uncharted territory for Jameis Winston, going through a game week when he's healthy and eligible, but playing the role of a backup quarterback. He is taking second-team reps while practicing optimism that he'll get the opportunity to regain the controls of the Bucs offense.
After throwing 10 interceptions in four games, Winston will open Sunday's division road game in Carolina on the sideline as an observer, watching newly-anointed starter Ryan Fitzpatrick run the NFL's top passing offense against the Panthers.
Taking a backseat is something very new for the Bucs' franchise quarterback and former No. 1 overall pick.
"I don't think I've ever been benched," Winston said Thursday. "It's humbling, and it's definitely something I can grow from and learn from and you know what, it just adds to the story. I just have to keep working hard. Like I've said, every year my goal is to get better and better, and right now, I'm not getting the job done, so I have been replaced and I'm moving forward, yeah."
This is about winning — which in the NFL it always should be — and a Bucs team that has lost four of out its last five games must turn the course of its season now. They are in a unique situation, a team that's forcibly in win-now mode because front office and coaching jobs are on the line. Tampa Bay has no time to wait for Winston to find his way on the field.
"I think winning is critical in any organization," Winston said. "Winning is really important, and winning is really important to me, so that's why I'm able to stomach this and just look on what I can do to get better."
Winston opened the season suspended for the first three games following a solid preseason, and once he was thrown back into action after halftime of a five-touchdown game in Chicago, he has moved his team down the field, but at the same time killed it by throwing interceptions.
"I didn't expect it," Winston said of the benching, "but one thing about me, I can be honest with myself in terms of playing on the field, and turnovers. … If you turn the ball over at any (level), college, high school, it's going to put your team in a bad position to win and we need to win as a team. I definitely understood why Coach (Dirk) Koetter went with Fitz."
Koetter said the decision was made because Fitzpatrick gives the team the best chance to win against the Panthers. Both Koetter and offensive coordinator Todd Monken believe Winston will have another opportunity to shine.
"As far as I'm concerned, I see improvement," Monken said. "I really do, now it's hard to say that with what's transpired here, but the bottom line is I see a better football player, but we've got to do it better. We've obviously got to call it better, we've got to play better around him and he's got to play better, and I think he would say that as well."
So the Bucs' search for wins marches on, without Winston front and center.
"Jameis is a pro," Koetter said. "I think he's doing a good job of that. He's not the only guy that's ever been in that situation. He's probably not the only guy on our team who's ever been in that situation. So sure, I'm concerned about all these guys, but at the same time, our No. 1 job is to get ready for Carolina."
Maybe those three weeks away hurt Winston's preparation — he was suspended for violating the league's personal conduct policy — and on Thursday, Winston didn't dismiss that notion being away from the team could have contributed to his struggled .
"Well, its a tough transition, I would say that," Winston said. "But out there on the field, when you've got guys like this around you, guys you can throw the ball to really any time, it's just me protecting the football, and that's all. I definitely worked really hard in this offseason and I think that I was playing pretty well for the most part, but I just can't turn the ball over."
Asked whether he believes he will be with Bucs next year, he said, "Yeah, hopefully."
"I know I'm going to be working my tail off to be ready when my time comes again. Right now, that's what I'm going to do. I'm gonna make sure I'm preparing every single week, being a great teammate that I can be, being the great quarterback that I can be and that's all.
"It's a setback," Winston added. "But it's a minor setback for a major comeback. It just tells you that you've got to continue to get better. I've never been in this situation before, so I have to learn from it and I have to grow from it. I have no choice."
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.