EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was a close call, Dirk Koetter said. It also was absolutely the wrong one.
The Bucs head coach started Ryan Fitzpatrick in Sunday's 38-35 loss to the New York Giants, a game that ended with Jameis Winston coming off the bench to lead his team to touchdowns on four consecutive possessions. The rally fell short when Tampa Bay's historically bad defense couldn't get a stop.
"The bottom line is, no matter how big the comeback, if you lose, it really doesn't matter,'' Winston said.
And maybe that's the point.
It doesn't matter who plays quarterback for this team.
Winston started and stunk it up in Cincinnati and was benched to watch Fitzpatrick rally the Bucs from an 18-point deficit only to lose when the defense allowed a game-winning field goal in the final minute.
Fitzpatrick started Sunday and threw three interceptions before being benched in the third quarter. But after Winston fired a TD pass to Adam Humphries to cut the lead to a field goal, the Bucs' undermanned defense allowed a 54-yard pass from Eli Manning to Evan Engram to set up Saquon Barkley's third TD.
Koetter was asked how close he came to starting Winston Sunday.
"Yeah, close. I have been telling you all along Jameis' day was going to come back,'' Koetter said. "That's water under the bridge right now.''
Actually, the bridge is gone, washed away by a raging tidal wave that could sweep everyone out of Tampa Bay.
Winston didn't say it in so many words, but he was hurt by his benching. He may have deserved it after turning the ball over 10 times in 14 quarters, but beneath his words Sunday was a 24-year-old No. 1 overall pick who Koetter gave up on.
"I love my head coach," Winston said. "He has to make some really tough decisions. I know that. But as a player on this team, my main focus is winning. I can't make a decision on anything outside of the ones I make on the football field.''
Winston wasn't perfect Sunday, though Eli Manning nearly was. Manning missed only one of his 18 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bucs' first score behind Winston was a fluke. Former Florida State teammate Mario Edwards hit Winston near the goal line to force a fumble that Mike Evans recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
"You have to give God the glory for that because that could've been a catastrophe on its own,'' Winston said. "But sometimes the ball does bounce our way. I could give you a couple of instances where a ball was batted up. Adam Humphries made a great effort to knock it down twice. So we can always look at the fine things and point to what led to a victory or a loss.''
So here is where we are with Koetter, Fitzpatrick and Winston:
* Koetter is running out of chances as the Bucs coach. His team has lost seven of their past eight games and at 3-7 is circling the drain. Only the 49ers, Cardinals and Raiders have a worse record at 2-8. The Bucs are closer to having the No. 1 overall pick in 2019 than a winning season.
* Koetter has produced the best offense in Bucs history. On Sunday, they had 510 yards, 31 first downs, converted 67 percent of their third-down tries and saw Peyton Barber rush for a career-high 106 yards on 18 carries.
* None of that matters if your quarterbacks give the ball away like Halloween candy.
"Turnovers are definitely killing us,'' Koetter said, whose team is minus023 in turnover ratio and on pace to shatter the NFL record of 30 set in 1965 by the Steelers.
* The Bucs defense was missing five starters Sunday, including linebacker Lavonte David. It gave up drives of 63, 95, 71 and 67-yards to the Giants.
* Fitzpatrick probably won't start another game. At 35, he's not the answer for the Bucs this year or in the future. His last pass was a rainmaker to DeSean Jackson that was intercepted in the end zone.
"I just threw it up,'' Fitzpatrick said.
* Koetter wouldn't name a starter for Sunday's game against the 49ers, but everything points to Winston.
"I don't have much control over that, but my play can speak for me,'' Winston said.
He stood in the locker room and buttoned up a white dress shirt, pulled a Windsor knot tight in his navy blue tie that matched perfectly with his navy blue suit and walked to the podium. When his news conference was over, Winston took off the suit, carefully hung it up and pulled on more comfortable athletic wear for the two-hour flight home.
The quarterback is about to change again.
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLStroud