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Could report of rift relate to Jameis Winston's damaged brand?

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston (3) talks with head coach Dirk Koetter  during a game against the Broncos last season in Tampa. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston (3) talks with head coach Dirk Koetter during a game against the Broncos last season in Tampa. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Dec. 11, 2017

TAMPA — What we have at One Buc Place is a game of Clue. The whodunit in this case is the person(s) who put out the information that quarterback Jameis Winston's relationship with coach Dirk Koetter is on cracked ice.

Was it Winston in the weight room via iPad? Or general manager Jason Licht in the lunch room via text message?

This would be ridiculous if there also wasn't some level of truth. Someone told NFL Network's Ian Rapoport that the relationship between Winston and Koetter is "not in a good place," which he reported before Sunday's 24-21 loss to Detroit. At face value, that's correct because at 4-9, last place in the NFC South is anything but good.

Winston and Koetter denied there is any rift Sunday, as did representatives of Winston and some members of the organization who declined to go on the record with the Tampa Bay Times.

"We both said what we had to say," Koetter said Monday. "We both know the truth about it so I don't know what else there is to talk about."

Specifically, the report focused on two alleged complaints by Winston: that Koetter didn't have his back forcefully enough while he played through a shoulder injury before being shut down Nov. 12 for three games; and that the offense is too predictable under Koetter, who is the play caller.

So why would this happen with just a month remaining in a lost season?

For starters, there are a lot of shareholders in Winston. He's more than a quarterback. He's a corporation that could be worth $100 million someday. This season, his brand has taken big hit. The optics are bad and someone is trying protect the brand.

Off the field, he is under investigation by the NFL for an allegation that he groped a female Uber driver in March 2016.

On the field, the perception is that Winston is falling farther and down the list of young, ascending NFL quarterbacks. Generation Next. Winston and the Titans' Marcus Mariota held the top spots until this season.

When the talking heads start listing the young guns in the NFL now, Winston has dropped like a stone. He is typically behind the Eagles' Carson Wentz, the Rams' Jared Goff, the Cowboys' Dak Prescott, the Texans' DeShaun Watson and Mariota, whose Titans will make the playoffs this season. Heck, even the Colts' Jacoby Brissett is getting more run than Winston and he's keeping the seat warm for Andrew Luck.

Because Winston toughed it out to play through an AC joint sprain in his right throwing shoulder, his body wasn't the only thing absorbing hits.

Winston went 0-4 and scored a nine points total in the first halves of those games he played hurt until the Bucs shut him down. At no point did Koetter make excuses for Winston's lack of production, though it became clear there were throws he couldn't make and others he turned down.

Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick went 2-1 while Winston was out. Maybe someone in Winston's orbit felt he didn't get enough credit from Koetter for playing hurt.

"When your medical staff clears any player for any injury to play, they are not going to clear him (if he isn't healthy),'' Koetter said upon Winston's return. "The player's health is always the No. 1 thing for every football team. If a player is at no more risk than what the normal risk is — and in the NFL, that's substantial — then they are going to play. That is what they're paid to do."

The perception is that injuries or not, Winston plateaued or maybe even took a step back this season. If you are a Winston shareholder — an agent, a family member, even a teammate — you may feel the need to blame Koetter and reach out to an NFL insider.

Covering the Bucs, I frequently have had agents, family members and even players wanting to share information about some particular beef or concern they had with a head coach, only to watch the same people deny the report later. Not saying it occurred in this case, but it happens.

Could someone inside One Buc Place benefit from such a report? Maybe, if they were trying to set the narrative for why Koetter may be fired at the end of the season. Maybe someone believes a report like this may topple an already wobbly coach if they can make ownership believe Winston has lost faith Koetter can take him to the next level.

The problem is that Koetter and the Bucs' front office may already be too linked to separate. Even if the Glazers were inclined to find some other coach to mentor Winston, there's no guarantee that coach wouldn't want to bring in his own GM or personnel department.

In the meantime, the search for shadowy figures gossiping about breakups will continue in the locker room, in the auditorium and the news conference rooms at One Buc Place.

Contact Rick Stroud at stroudbucs@aol.com. Follow @NFLStroud