Wondering who is supposed to rescue the Bucs? (Hint: You already know him)

While other NFL cities are toasting newly acquired stars, Tampa Bay’s entire 2019 season will revolve around a player who arrived years ago.
Four years after they drafted him, the Bucs are putting all of their hopes (and a lot of their money) on the idea that quarterback Jameis Winston is ready to take that next step into elite status. (Bronte Wittpenn/Times)
Four years after they drafted him, the Bucs are putting all of their hopes (and a lot of their money) on the idea that quarterback Jameis Winston is ready to take that next step into elite status. (Bronte Wittpenn/Times)
Published March 14, 2019

TAMPA — Let “em celebrate Odell Beckham Jr. in Cleveland.

They can pop the corks in New York for Le’Veon Bell, and blow kisses to Tyrann Mathieu in Kansas City. Truth is, there’s not a single NFL city that has a shot at the player the Buccaneers need the most.

You want a new savior in Tampa Bay?

Say hello to Jameis Winston.

This isn’t exactly surprising, nor is it reassuring. But every decision the Bucs have made recently seems to revolve around the idea that Winston will finally emerge as an elite quarterback in 2019.

When it came time to hire a new head coach, the Bucs found the oldest one available. Why? Because Bruce Arians is a famed groomer of quarterbacks. When it came time to re-sign one of their free agents, they sent the Brinks truck to Donovan Smith’s house. Why? Because a quarterback needs his left tackle.

And when the free agency store opened this week, the Bucs stood around waiting to see who showed up in the clearance aisle. Why? Because they had so little space under the salary cap.

That last one isn’t all Winston’s fault, but he does play a role. His salary cap hit is about to go from $7.9 million to $20.9 million, which accounts for a good chunk of money the team might have otherwise used to re-sign Kwon Alexander or Adam Humphries or to chase other free agents.

And that, my friends, is your off-season. The Bucs have neither the time, nor the salary cap to adequately remake their roster outside of a few draft picks. So if the Buccaneers are to be a different team in 2019, it will be because Arians made Winston into a different quarterback.

And, if you want to win instantly, that’s probably the way to go. You bank on the idea that back-to-back 5-11 seasons were caused by the coaches on the sidelines and not the players on the field.

But if you’re wrong about Winston’s potential, you will have mangled the salary cap, planned your draft around a misguided notion, delayed a rebuilding effort by another year, and lost the faith of more fans.

Oh, and also wasted that $20.9 million of ownership’s money.

Now, truthfully, a $21 million salary for a quarterback is not outrageous. It’s essentially the league median for starters. But in this case, it’s a little pricey for a quarterback with Winston’s resume.

Of the 16 QBs slated to make that kind of money in 2019, Winston is one of three who has never taken a team to the playoffs, he’s in the bottom five for passer rating, and he has the worst winning percentage as a starter. In other words, he’s sitting at a table with Derek Carr and Ryan Tannehill.

I’m not saying this won’t work, but the odds are clearly against the Bucs.

Their defense in 2018 was horrendous, the second-worst in franchise history. And you can’t call it a fluke or a mirage. Tampa Bay has been in the bottom third of the NFL in points allowed for eight consecutive seasons. That’s a defense that is crying for help.

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Now, new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles could be just the man to turn things around. But he can’t do it overnight, and he can’t do it without some reinforcements.

Presumably, that will be the focus of next month’s draft. And, surely, there will be some excitement when Tampa Bay brings new cornerbacks, linebackers and defensive ends to town.

But that’s asking an awful lot out of one draft – to not only represent the future but the present as well.

So if you’re still waiting for the cavalry to come riding into town this week, you might be disappointed. It doesn’t seem like Tampa Bay is going big-name shopping or providing too many feel-good storylines.

If the Bucs are to find a missing ingredient for a 5-11 team, you better hope it’s the quarterback who’s already been here for four years.

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Contact John Romano at Follow at @romano_tbtimes.