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Buccaneers-Bears All-22: Tampa Bay has benched Ryan Fitzpatrick, and I don’t know why

What exactly did Fitzpatrick do to lose the starting quarterback job? And what did Jameis Winston do to earn it?
The Bucs have benched Ryan Fitzpatrick in favor of Jameis Winston. Fitzpatrick wasn't flawless in Sunday's loss to the Bears, but he didn't allow Chicago to score 38 points in the first half, either. [Associated Press]
The Bucs have benched Ryan Fitzpatrick in favor of Jameis Winston. Fitzpatrick wasn't flawless in Sunday's loss to the Bears, but he didn't allow Chicago to score 38 points in the first half, either. [Associated Press]
Published Oct. 3, 2018
Updated Oct. 4, 2018

I don’t believe in the eye test. Give me the numbers.

The numbers don’t have an allegiance to a team or a player. They didn’t attend a particular college. They don’t work for anyone.

The numbers say Jameis Winston, not Ryan Fitzpatrick, should be the starting quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they return to play Oct. 14. FiveThirtyEight recently analyzed Winston’s and Fitzpatrick’s career statistics and determined that in the long term, Tampa Bay would be better off with Winston.

And the Bucs agree. Coach Dirk Koetter announced Monday that Winston will be the starter against the Falcons in Week 6.

“Jameis Winston is the guy who’s going to be here way longer than I am,” Koetter said. “So, he needs to be out there playing, and he will be unless he gets hurt.”

Koetter’s candor was striking, especially in the wake of his “We should fire every person that was on that field today, starting with me” comment after the 48-10 loss to the Bears on Sunday. Press conferences usually are rote exercises. Reporters pepper coaches with questions; coaches talk but don’t really say anything. In this instance, though, a few words revealed a lot.

The most simplistic reading is that who starts at quarterback isn’t Koetter’s decision to make, at least not exclusively. That’s not surprising. He’s not the only stakeholder. He reports to a general manager, and that general manager reports to an ownership group. Koetter isn’t set to earn $20 million next season; Winston is. More important, he won’t be the one paying that $20 million.

There’s a more fatalistic interpretation: Koetter is acknowledging that he is at the mercy of forces beyond his control, that his hold on power is slipping and becomes flimsier with each loss. It brings to mind the scene from Shakespeare’s King Lear where a spiraling Lear ventures into a raging thunderstorm. Lear talks to the storm, challenging it to do its damage.

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! / You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!”

While Lear is commanding the storm, he realizes he is powerless against it. He is insignificant, or no more significant than any other man.

It was inevitable that Winston would regain the starting job, regardless of what the coach thought. The organization drafted him No. 1 overall in 2015, and it wants to see whether he can fulfill his promise. The Bucs' 35-point deficit at halftime Sunday merely provided the opportunity to begin the transition from Fitzpatrick. It’s convenient to make the change now, especially when you take the bye week into account and the extra preparation time it affords. It’s an easy pitch. People will buy it. And the numbers back it.

RELATED STORY: Jameis Winston: Most underrated quarterback of 2017?

Yet I keep wondering: What exactly did Fitzpatrick do to lose the job? And what did Winston do to earn it back?

You might argue that it was never Fitzpatrick’s job. Fitzpatrick, 35, is not the future. Winston, 24, is, or could be. There never used to be a doubt about that, but now there is. Everything changed that March 2016 night in Scottsdale, Ariz., when Winston got into an Uber.

Fitzpatrick, however, did earn the job. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have started Sunday in Chicago. The Bucs would have plugged Winston back into the lineup immediately after the end of his three-game suspension for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy.

Don’t let the “short week after Monday Night Football” argument distract you. Winston is a veteran professional player who works at his craft. He wasn’t sitting on his couch munching on Flamin' Hot Funyuns for a month. He played throughout training camp and preseason. It shouldn’t take him any more time to get up to game speed than it would for you to get back on a bicycle. Look around the league. Teams don’t sit their starting quarterbacks any longer than they have to. Aaron Rodgers will play on one leg.

RELATED STORY: Why Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fitzmagic could be real

So if Fitzpatrick did enough to earn the Week 4 start, what happened Sunday that led to his demotion?

After watching and rewatching the coaches film, I don’t have an answer. Fitzpatrick wasn’t flawless. He wasn’t bad, though, and he most certainly was not the reason the Bears demolished the Bucs. He threw, at most, five passes that I might grade as bad throws or decisions.

Fitzpatrick was a victim of circumstance. The game was over after one quarter. The rest was just passing time. We ought to consider that context when evaluating his performance.

Some examples:

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

• On Fitzpatrick’s second pass of the game, a third and 10 in Chicago territory, he overthrew DeSean Jackson. Though I graded this as a poor throw, it wasn’t entirely Fitzpatrick’s fault. The pass protection on the right side of the offensive line broke down, as the Bears confused the Bucs by executing a stunt, a move where pass rushers, instead of attacking blockers head on, loop around each other. Drive result: punt.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

• On a second and 5 halfway through the first quarter, officials called a holding penalty on tight end O.J. Howard. Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks then beat guard Caleb Benenoch as if he was a bop bag and sacked Fitzpatrick for a 7-yard loss, setting up third and 22. Drive result: punt.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

• At the end of the first quarter, the Bucs offense reached the red zone for the first time. On second and 5 from the Chicago 12, Fitzpatrick threw a short pass to rookie running back Ronald Jones, who dropped it. You could question the wisdom of the Bucs putting Jones, a work-in-progress as a pass catcher, in that situation. The play design, however, schemed him open, and he had blockers in front of him. It’s hard to put a running back in a more favorable position.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

On the next play, Fitzpatrick made his biggest mistake of the game. The Bucs succeeded in getting Howard isolated against a defensive back on the left side of the field. It was a look Tampa Bay wanted, so much so that Fitzpatrick stared it down and missed Chris Godwin wide open over the middle. His throw to Howard was high and incomplete. Drive result: field goal.

• When the Bucs got the ball again, with about 12 minutes left in the second quarter, they were already facing near-impossible odds. Down 21-3, they needed a quick score. The Bears knew this and dropped eight defenders into pass coverage on first and second downs. Good luck splitting a defense when it knows you have to pass. It’s like trying to penetrate the last row on a checkerboard on which your opponent hasn’t budged a piece.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

On third and 11, the Bears blitzed and linebacker Khalil Mack shed a block en route to knocking the ball out of Fitzpatrick’s hand. The Bucs had three viable receiving options and all were covered. Drive result: punt.

In the first half alone, the Bears had five touchdown drives of 70 or more yards. The last time that happened: 2001. Pick a quarterback — Fitzpatrick, Winston, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Dan Marino, Joe Montana — he and his offense won’t be able to keep up with that.

The Bucs had a problem Sunday, and it wasn’t the quarterback. But they’re making a change anyway.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.