Winston's suspension could chart course of Bucs' season
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — By the time Jameis Winston takes another snap in a NFL game, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have a better idea of how much the young quarterback's suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy will impact the team's playoff hopes.
Opening on the road at New Orleans, then returning home to face defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia and AFC heavyweight Pittsburgh figured to be challenging enough even before Winston was disciplined for touching a female Uber driver inappropriately in 2016.
The Bucs consider themselves fortunate to have Ryan Fitzpatrick, entering his 14th season, filling in.
Nevertheless, facing the Saints, Eagles and Steelers without their starter will put additional pressure on a talented group of receivers and an overhauled defense to carry the team until Winston is eligible to return in Week 4 against the Chicago Bears.
"I don't want this to be about me," Winston said on the first day of training camp, the last time he spoke publicly about his suspension. "I want it to be about us getting better and us heading into this season with a mission to go 3-0."
By all accounts, Winston has done everything the team has asked him to do during camp, accepting working with second- and third-stringers in practice and preseason games while trying to lead from behind the scenes.
"Jameis has been great. There hasn't been a change with him in terms of the way he's attacking the game, the way he's been in the meeting rooms, the amount of time that he's putting in," Fitzpatrick said. "He's been awesome."
The 24-year-old who's thrown for 11,636 yards, 69 touchdowns and 44 interceptions since entering the league as the first overall pick in the 2015 draft also played well in the preseason, completing 73 percent of his passes with zero turnovers.
"I think performance-wise you would have to give Jameis an 'A' for the preseason," coach Dirk Koetter said.
"I think he handled it well, I think he performed very well and I think he did a really good job of working on things he needed to work on," the coach added.
"Obviously, we've beat (the suspension) enough. The situation is what it is. Wish it wasn't that way, but it is. We're going to miss him when he's gone and we'll be glad when he gets back."
Here are some other things to know about the Bucs:
The Bucs haven't made the playoffs since 2007. The only team with a longer stretch of futility is Cleveland, which hasn't earned a berth since 2002. Last year's 5-11 record was a major disappointment, coming on the heels of a 9-7 finish the previous year. After a 2-1 start, team lost 10 of 13 to sink to the bottom of the NFC South.
Rebuilding the defensive line was a major priority after finishing last in the NFL with 22 sacks and also ranking 32nd in pass defense a year ago. Koetter and general manager Jason Licht bolstered the front by trading for edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul and signing end Vinny Curry and tackles Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein in free agency. The Bucs also drafted tackle Vita Vea in the first round, though a calf injury sidelined him most of training camp.
Pierre-Paul had 58½ sacks in eight seasons with the New York Giants, including 16½ in 2011. The Bucs haven't had a player with 10 or more in a season since Simeon Rice in 2005.
Regardless of who's at quarterback, the Bucs feel they have as good a collection of receivers as any team in the league. Mike Evans is one of just three players in NFL history — along with A.J. Green and Hall of Famer Randy Moss — to begin a career with four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons receiving. DeSean Jackson, at 31, is still one of the league's top deep threats, and young receivers Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries have been productive, too. Add tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard to the mix, and there are plenty of options in the passing game. "We can compete with the best of them around the league," Evans said.
Improving the running game has been another point of emphasis. The Bucs ranked 27th among 32 teams a year ago in rushing offense, with Payton Barber leading the way with 423 yards and three touchdowns. It was the fourth time in the past five seasons that Tampa Bay's leading rusher gained fewer than 600 yards. Barber enters the season as the likely starter, however Ronald Jones II was drafted in the second round and will get an opportunity to make a difference.
The Bucs have missed the playoffs 10 consecutive seasons and haven't won a postseason game since their 2002 Super Bowl run. Among the new arrivals, though, Pierre-Paul won a NFL title with the Giants and Curry and Allen helped the Eagles win last season's crown. "My biggest thing I'm telling everyone," Curry said, "is winning is contagious."
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