The end of the Bucs’ Dirk Koetter-Jameis Winston partnership

It's hard to imagine the head coach and the quarterback both back with the Bucs in 2019.
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter watches  quarterback Jameis Winston (3) and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) during practice in September in Tampa. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter watches quarterback Jameis Winston (3) and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) during practice in September in Tampa. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Nov. 17, 2018

TAMPA — The relationship between Dirk Koetter and Jameis Winston may not be in a good place.

Okay, it's in last place.

But remember, almost a year to the day, Ian Rapoport of said, "The relationship between quarterback Jameis Winston and Koetter is not in a good place. There's definitely some tension there.''

Both denied any kind of schism then, but based on Koetter's decision to continue to bench Winston now?

Let's just say it's hard to imagine both being back with the Bucs in 2019.

Maybe Winston will be. Maybe Koetter will be. But both Winston and Koetter won't be.

That became pretty apparent when Koetter decided to stick with Ryan Fitzpatrick as his starting quarterback for today's game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium.

Winston was benched after throwing 10 interceptions in 14 quarters, including four in a 37-34 loss at Cincinnati. Fitzpatrick erased an 18-point deficit against the Bengals only to lose on a field goal in the closing seconds.

But Fitzpatrick has five turnovers in the past two games, including three in a 16-3 loss to Washington last Sunday. And yet, in the most critical game of the season, with the jobs of an entire coaching staff and maybe the front office on the line, this is the quarterback situation: Koetter trusts a 35-year-old 14-year veteran with his seventh team who has never reached the playoffs and has started only nine games for the Bucs more than he trusts the 24-year-old No. 1 overall draft choice who has made 48 starts in Tampa Bay.

As offensive coordinator Todd Monken said Thursday, "At this moment, as coaches, we're paid to try and win. We keep our jobs by winning.''

You can't fault Koetter for doing what he thinks gives the Bucs the best chance to win today. But you have to wonder what is going through the heads of the Glazer family, which I understand truly wants to see Winston remain with the Bucs. That explains why it picked up his fifth-year club option worth $20.9 million for next season.

If the Bucs had given up on Winston and merely wanted to safeguard that salary, which is guaranteed only against injury, Ryan Griffin would be the No. 2 quarterback today and Winston would be inactive.

Let's agree it's not about the money.

The Glazers have to give Koetter freedom to do whatever he can to win because that's how coaches are judged.

But you have to wonder, even if Koetter wins the final seven games of the season with Fitzpatrick, would that save his job?

It should. That would be a remarkable save after a 3-6 start. But how does Winston ever take another snap with Koetter as head coach?

On the other hand, if the ownership is committed to Winston for at least another season, how is Koetter the one coaching him?

The irony is that Koetter got this job largely based on what he did as offensive coordinator for Winston's development. The Bucs wanted continuity and to have Winston grow into a franchise quarterback.

But if Winston's development is stunted by Koetter, even if Koetter wins games, does the coach lose his job?

Remember, Winston probably doesn't see himself as anything but a young, ascending franchise quarterback, once on the verge of a $100 million pay day before his three-game suspension from the NFL to start this season after it determined he groped an Uber driver in 2016.

Why, then, should he be singled out for turning the ball over when Fitzpatrick's career interception rate is higher (3.4 to 3.2)?

Statistically, Fitzpatrick has played better this season. He has completed a higher percentage of passes (67.1-64.9), has more touchdowns (17-6), fewer interceptions (10-9) and a better passer rating (107.3-74.7) with 77 more attempts.

But a lot of those numbers have come with the Bucs trailing by three scores in the second half.

Here's the thing about the Glazers: They're not going to make the lineup. You can start any quarterback you like, but you have to have a good reason for it. If you think long term, they think long term. If you think short term, they think short term.

Credit Koetter for this: Along with general manager Jason Licht, he has built one of the NFL's best offenses. It doesn't seem to matter who plays quarterback. The Bucs still churn out the yardage. But when Koetter announced that Fitzpatrick would start today, he said, "And that's the way it will stay." When asked if that meant there would be no change the rest of the season, he said, "I don't know. A guy could get hurt at any time."

"Frustrated" is the word the Winston camp has used to describe the situation.

"Not in a good place" is another way to say it.

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLStroud.