Earlier this offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed like a trendy pick to be a surprise team in 2018.
There are a few teams every year that far exceed expectations, like the Buffalo Bills earning a postseason berth for the first time since 1999 last season, or the Rams increasing their win total by seven games compared to 2016 in their return to Los Angeles.
The Bucs, a team that won just four games last year, added some major artillery to their defensive line through the draft and free agency (most notably, signing Vinny Curry and Beau Allen, trading for Jason Pierre-Paul, and drafting Vita Vea). They did that while already boasting some potent offensive firepower supplied by Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and 2017 first-round pick O.J. Howard.
But their optimistic offseason hit the skids last week with the announcement that quarterback Jameis Winston has been suspended for the first three games of the 2018 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
A female Uber driver alleged Winston groped her in Scottsdale, Ariz., on March 1, 2017. Despite Winston’s denials, the league concluded after its investigation he touched the driver without her consent, and the quarterback didn’t appeal the decision.
The suspension raises all sorts of questions about the futures of both Winston, whose off-field transgressions go back to college, and the Bucs, a franchise that hasn't made the postseason since 2007, now the NFL’s second-longest drought. Tampa was banking on Winston to keep his head on straight and help the team climb back into the national conversation for the first time since the Jon Gruden era.
The Buccaneers gambled on Winston in 2015, selecting him with the No. 1 overall pick out of Florida State ahead of Marcus Mariota, who was taken second overall by the Tennessee Titans following his Heisman-winning year. Winston's accuracy and passer rating have improved in each of his three seasons, although his 15 fumbles led the league last year, and the best record Tampa Bay has managed with him under center is 9-7.
Any chance the Bucs had to survive an NFC South in 2018 that features two MVP quarterbacks (Cam Newton and Matt Ryan) and another passer who’s made 11 Pro Bowls and is a Super Bowl MVP (Drew Brees) rested on Winston’s ability to emerge as a Pro Bowl-level pivot.
Mariota, whose squeaky-clean past convinced the Titans to turn down offers for the No. 2 pick, has already led Tennessee into the postseason and won his first playoff game.
But the Bucs will be without their franchise cornerstone for a brutal three-game stretch to open the season in 2018 that starts against the defending NFC South-champion New Orleans Saints, and it continues with clashes against the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers, a perennial AFC powerhouse.
Veteran backup Ryan Fitzpatrick started three games for the Buccaneers last year and played most of another in place of an injured Winston. The team went 2-2 in Winston’s absence, but it’s safe to say the Bucs aren’t thrilled that Fitzpatrick, at 35 years old, will be leading the huddle when the season opens Sept. 6 in the Superdome.
It’s even safer to surmise that Winston and the Bucs will face a major crossroad soon. Tampa Bay could have extended Winston’s contract this offseason, but instead, the front office chose to funnel money into free-agent/trade additions Pierre-Paul, Curry, and Allen, and extensions for Evans and tight end Cameron Brate.
But the Bucs exercised the fifth-year option on Winston for 2019, a price tag of $20.9 million. Will they be willing to fork over that hefty sum if he doesn’t get his act together, both on and off the field? Despite his statistical improvements, Winston’s record is 18-27, and his 31 career fumbles point to carelessness.
The Bucs made an unpopular move by firing head coach Lovie Smith following the 2015 season, even after the team’s win total jumped four games. He was replaced by offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who hasn’t maximized Winston’s talents or coaxed enough consistency from his most important player.
Winston's peaks and valleys are remarkable. Last year, his completion percentage fell below 60 percent in six games, and there were four weeks in which he completed 70-plus percent of his throws. He recorded three three-touchdown games, but also two three-interception games. His worst and best games came against the same team: A 49.2 passer rating against the Panthers in Tampa on Oct. 29, and a 131.1 rating during the rematch Dec. 24 in Charlotte.
Winston's suspension gives the Bucs another reason to wonder if he’s learned anything from well-documented troubles at Florida State, which included an accusation of raping a woman at his apartment. Charges were never brought against him. With the Seminoles, Winston was suspended twice - once from the baseball team and once from the football team - for off-field incidents.
The Bucs have won just 20 games in three years since deciding Winston’s history of misbehaving wasn’t enough of a deterrent to pass on him at No. 1 overall. In the three years before Winston’s arrival, the Bucs won 13 games, an average of about four annually. The Bucs were probably expecting more of an improvement by the time Winston entered his third season, and definitely by his fourth.
Winston is walking a major tightrope with his most recent suspension. If he doesn’t make significant life changes, the 24-year-old won’t be around very long, and perhaps not long enough to collect his $20.9 million in 2019.
And if he continues down his current path, the Buccaneers will be left restarting and looking for their next savior.
Geoff Mosher is an award-winning sports reporter, radio host, and TV personality with more than 20 years of experience covering all major sports and leagues. He also hosts regularly on 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia and co-hosts "The Sports Shop" on Facebook. You can find him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)