TAMPA —Jameis Winston should be starting Sunday with the wind at his back and a $100-million payday in his future. But here we are, with six games remaining in a disastrous season, and he has yet to earn even the Bucs' confidence.
At 3-7, coach Dirk Koetter knows he probably won't be the one judging whether Winston has a future in Tampa Bay.
When asked if this Winston re-start, which begins with a 1 p.m. home game against the 49ers, amounts to an audition for 2019, Koetter said he wasn't sure.
"I just don't know for obvious reasons," Koetter said. "I think Jameis is still a franchise quarterback, but that decision will be made by somebody else at the end of the year."
For this last look at Winston, the Bucs are risking the $20.9-million, fifth-year option that's guaranteed only against injury. What the heck, the Glazer family figures. The overall investment in money, time and a No. 1 overall pick much more than that.
For his part, Winston sounds grateful and gracious, though perhaps more focused on his future in the league than in Tampa Bay.
"I just know I'm committed to this team," Winston said, "to do my best, to provide an opportunity for me later.''
Two things that the Bucs knew about Winston when they took him No. 1 overall in 2015 are at the center of his demise: He doesn't protect the football and makes bad decisions off the field that are even more costly.
The waves are still pounding the shore from Winston's three-game suspension to start the season after an NFL investigation concluded he groped an Uber driver. There are signs of erosion from the coaching staff to the front office, which has yet to engage Winston's representatives about a possible contract extension.
But Winston knows his pedigree as a Heisman Trophy, national championship-winning quarterback will at least buy him another opportunity in the quarterback-starved NFL.
One thing Winston has going for him is that the Glazer family likes him personally. But is it enough to warrant another season, either under Koetter or a new head coach who believes it's worth another year to try and salvage the Bucs' investment?
As Winston steps back into the huddle as the starter Sunday, here are the factors that will determine his future:
Turnovers must be reduced
The Bucs have built the NFL's most productive offense in terms of yards per game (458.5). The problem is they have not been able to coach turnovers out of Winston. His won-loss record reflects that.
Winston is 19-29 as a starter — but 4-12 over the last this last 16 starts. Hamstrung by an historically poor defense, he nonetheless has 55 interceptions and 20 lost fumbles in 50 games.
Though he has improved in many areas — completion percentage, for example — the turnovers haven't slowed.
It's not simply ball placement or slow recognition of the defense. Winston has little problem with that. It's primarily his carelessness, bordering on recklessness, that persists.
"Yes. Decision-making, sure,'' Koetter said. "I mean, we've talked about it many times. It was no secret when Jameis came here — came out of college — Jameis is such a fantastic competitor. He has never met a play he doesn't think he can make it a good play.
"I think in college Jameis was able to overcome that a lot and in the NFL it's harder to do. If he had the right team around him that might be different, but when you're picked number one you're usually not going to the best team."
At 24, Winston's passing yardage (13,016), touchdown passes (77) and yards per attempt (7.6) can rival any player at the same age. But those numbers haven't translated into wins.
"You can look at my stats and say, 'Oh, Jameis this ….' " Winston said. "But you got to win to be up to that standard of excellence at this position that we're held to.''
The Bucs are dumbfounded that with all these weapons, neither Winston nor Ryan Fitzpatrick seem capable of winning consistently. Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate, Adam Humphries — those targets and a capable offensive line should be enough.
"As coaches, they game plan very well and I think as players, our talent and effort level is probably better than a lot of teams in this league," Winston said. "… I'm a good quarterback. I have great targets. That's the magic buildup for a great offense.''
But the defense and on pace to allow 526 points this season, which would rank among the most in NFL history. The Bucs have only one interception and are minus 23 in turnover ratio.
Our Bucs coverage team's picks for this week's NFL games, including three Thanksgiving Day games. @TB_Times @NFLSTROUD @EddieInTheYard @tometrics @TomWJones @mjfennelly @MikeSherman @hoop4you https://t.co/jFzye32Npd— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) November 22, 2018
A willingness to risk $20.9 million
If the Bucs didn't still believe in Winston, he would be the inactive third quarterback. He's one play away from an injury and a huge payday. If Winston can pass a physical at the end of the league year, the Bucs could walk away with no salary cap ramifications.
Why put that much on the table?
For starters, the salary cap increases each season based on total revenues. It's risen $10 million a year since 2013. The Bucs also could subtract the contracts of Jackson, Alexander, Donovan Smith and others after this season.
Strange as it may seem, the Bucs want six more games to tell them something they haven't discovered about Winston in 3½ seasons, and they have the money to risk to do it.
If the Bucs decide to start over with a new head coach, their first conversation will be about Winston. Does he think he can save him? Is he worth the trouble?
The Bucs have not begun any talks with Winston's agent, Joel Segal, about a possible contract extension. Their attitude is it's a discussion they will have after the season.
It's unlikely Winston would find a team willing to pay him $20.1 million after this season, so the Bucs may feel they have a little leverage on possible talks aimed at reducing his salary for 2019 in exchange for some guarantees on a multi-year deal.
For all the love the Glazers have professed for their quarterback, they want all the information before moving forward.
Meanwhile, Winston's camp says he is frustrated but confident about his future, whether in Tampa Bay or elsewhere.
A season-ending injury to a player of O.J. Howard's caliber would be catastrophic to most teams. The Bucs simply turn to Cameron Brate. #Bucs #Buccaneers @Buccaneers @EddieInTheYard @TB_Times https://t.co/6qYpTvYSKs— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) November 22, 2018
The quarterback class of 2019
This is not a strong quarterback draft class. Right now, the Bucs would be picking No. 8 overall and clearly have more needs on defense. Oregon's Justin Herbert, Missouri's Drew Lock and West Virginia's Will Grier all may find a place in the first round. None scream can't-miss.
As for free agents, Saints backup Teddy Bridgewater may head the current list. But he has not started a game and played in only five since 2015.
If the Bucs don't pick up Winston's club option, he'll be the most attractive free agent QB by far.
The Glazers may also just chalk this up to all the disruption Winston has had to deal with: News of the suspension, taking a back seat to Fitzpatrick in training camp and preseason, having to work out on his own with free agents and undrafted players during his hiatus.
Koetter met with Winston and Fitzpatrick individually Monday to inform them of his quarterback decision. With so much at stake, there weren't a lot of words spoken, Winston said. There didn't have to be.
"All he said was that we wanted to win. And that's the bottom line,'' Winston said. "That's all it's about. He told me we want to win, and I agreed with him. I told him, 'I want to win as much as you.' ''
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLStroud