Bucs lack proven backup for Jameis Winston

QB Ryan Griffin, warming up for a 2014 game while with the Saints, has been the Bucs’ No. 3 for the past two seasons and has never played in an NFL game.
QB Ryan Griffin, warming up for a 2014 game while with the Saints, has been the Bucs’ No. 3 for the past two seasons and has never played in an NFL game.
Published April 2, 2017

TAMPA — Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston has started all 32 of the Bucs' games since he came to the NFL. He's durable, and that's a good thing, because he's only the most important player on the team.

But what if something were to go wrong. What if he got hurt? Would that make the backup quarterback the second-most important player on the team?

You don't think about the air bags in your car until you have an accident. That's pretty much the plight of the No. 2 signal caller.

He stands on the sideline — in the case of the now-departed Mike Glennon, for two years — always preparing without the benefit of live practice, as if he is going to play. But the only decision-making he has to make comes after the game, on whether to shower.

But the Bucs thought so much of Glennon — and the importance of winning this season — that they offered him $8 million a year to carry a clipboard and wear a ball cap.

Glennon cashed in as a free agent this offseason for the one game he mopped up in the past two years — a lopsided loss to Atlanta — by signing a three-year, $45 million contract as the presumptive starter for the Bears.

Now the Bucs' best candidate to caddie for Winston in 2017 is Ryan Griffin. His next regular-season NFL pass will be his first.

The Bucs claimed Griffin, 27, off waivers from the Saints in 2015. He spent most of two seasons on the Saints' practice squad after entering the league as an undrafted free agent from Tulane, where he set most of the school's passing records.

Also in the mix is Sean Renfree, signed this offseason. Renfree 26, threw for more than 9,400 yards and 51 touchdowns in four seasons at Duke. He was a seventh-round draft pick of the Falcons in 2013 and appeared in two games two years later, throwing seven passes.

"When I first got here, we knew we were going to draft Jameis and we had Mike Glennon, but knew we were going to be losing Mike," said coach Dirk Koetter, who came to the Bucs as the offensive coordinator in 2015. "The two quarterbacks that we always had our eyes on that were No. 3s in the league were (Griffin and Renfree), and now we have them both.

"They haven't had their opportunity yet to prove when the money is on the line, they can do it. Some guys have had their chance and can do it, and others have proven they couldn't do it. These guys haven't had a chance to prove that yet."

Perhaps. Griffin can throw the ball, he's smart and he has been in the same system for two seasons.

"We like the way Ryan Griffin has played when he's gotten a chance, and we like that he has improved in practice," GM Jason Licht said. "We watch him every day, and he has earned the right to compete for this job. He just has to do it in a regular-season game."

But there's the rub. This is such an important season for the Bucs under Licht and Koetter that you wonder why they wouldn't at least explore the veteran backup quarterback market and sign someone to at least compete with Griffin and Renfree.

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The player who will not be coming to Tampa Bay is free agent Colin Kaepernick. It may not be because of his protest of not standing for the national anthem last season, but rather, Licht said, he believes Kaepernick is a bad fit for the offense.

"(Kaepernick has) done some really good things in his career, but we don't want to have to change the whole offense if our quarterback goes down," Licht said.

The Bucs kicked the tires on free agent Nick Foles, but he signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Eagles.

So what will the Bucs do for a backup to Winston? Only a guess, but a number of veterans will likely shake free after this month's draft when teams address that position. The fact is, the guy you hope will never have to play had better work out if you have to call on him.

ON THE MOVE: Winston is a pocket passer, and his mobility wasn't expected to be a great asset. But what the Bucs discovered halfway through last season is that Winston is very accurate throwing on the run. They plan to continue to find ways to get him outside the pocket.

"We had a small movement package early in the year," Koetter said. "We didn't use it that much. And then we kind of started using it a little bit more, and our numbers, our analytics told us, "Hey, we're doing pretty good on this. Maybe we should do it more? We had a lot of success in that area. When Jameis was outside the pocket and had multiple receivers to throw it to or run it at times, we did well. So I would say we will continue to build that part of the offense."