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NFL

Jameis Winston

TAMPA, Fla. — The NFL is planning to suspend Jameis Winston for the first three games of the season, according to a report by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t sweating their backup options.

Enter Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The Bucs were cautiously optimistic all offseason but knew Winston could face discipline following an investigation into his alleged groping of a female Uber driver, and they secured insurance by re-signing Fitzpatrick in March before he could test free agency.

The 14-year veteran, who first signed with the Bucs last offseason, won 2 of 3 starts for them in 2017 when Winston suffered a sprained AC joint in the right shoulder of his throwing arm. Fitzpatrick knows their system, and players and coaches see him as a steadying force — not only for Winston, but also their offense. In fact, quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian didn’t think there was much of a drop-off from Winston to Fitzpatrick.

“Sure, he’s got another year under the belt in this offense, which can only help, but at no point last year did I think he had a gap to close or anything,” Bajakian said of Fitzpatrick. “I mean, he came in, learned the offense quickly, was a great influence in the meeting room, and then when it came time for him to play he executed well.”

The Bucs open the season facing three straight playoff teams that all won their divisions and finished a combined 37-11 last season — on the road against the New Orleans Saints in Week 1, at home against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2 and at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football in Week 3. Fitzpatrick is a combined 1-8 against those teams.

Winston’s suspension doesn’t just impact his availability for games in 2018, but possibly his future with the organization. The Bucs have fully supported him, both publicly and privately up until this point. Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer told ESPN back in March that the league’s investigation did not change his perception of Winston whatsoever. He lauded Winston for his work ethic, leadership and contributions off the field.

“The Jameis Winston that has been on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since the day we drafted him has been a model in the community, a model in the locker room,” Glazer told ESPN in March. “He’s the first guy in the building, the last guy to leave the building, playing through pain, with injuries most people probably wouldn’t play for. So he’s done everything we were drawing up on the drawing board as our quarterback and the person we drafted.”

The Bucs furthered their support by picking up the fifth-year option on his contract for $21 million, and all signs have still pointed to him getting a new deal in line with what the top quarterbacks in the league are making, which is in excess of $100 million. But additional fact-finding from the league’s investigation could always change that equation.

For the first three games, they will rely on Fitzpatrick, who completed 96 of 163 passing last season, throwing for 1,103 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He showed that he can take what the defense gives him, checking down instead of taking unnecessary risks by going for the big play downfield. He threw for 187 yards and a touchdown in a 15-10 win against the New York Jets in Week 10, stopping a five-game losing streak. He followed that up with a 30-20 win on the road against the Miami Dolphins in Week 11, throwing two touchdown passes and calmly setting up a game-winning field goal by Patrick Murray with seven seconds left. On that final drive, Fitzpatrick completed 3 of 5 passing attempts, hitting Mike Evans for a 17-yard pass and then-rookie Chris Godwin for 14- and 24-yard pick-ups before giving way to Murray.

Fitzpatrick does run into trouble when he’s trying to force things, which is what happened when the Bucs were down 31-0 against the Arizona Cardinals in the third quarter of Week 6 last season. He stepped in for Winston and threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns in the 38-33 loss. Granted, Fitzpatrick nearly pulled off the upset, but he also threw two interceptions trying to play from so far behind.

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