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Jameis Winston’s Likely Suspension Threatening a Critical Season for Both QB and Franchise

Head coach Dirk Koetter and GM Jason Licht don't have much room for error this season, and the likely suspension of their quarterback could cause a greater long-term impact than expected.

It’d be one thing if the sexual assault accusations against Jameis Winston—he allegedly groped an Uber driver in March 2016—came out of nowhere and were completely out of character for the Buccaneers’ young quarterback. Maybe the NFL’s investigators would be more inclined to take Winston’s word on what happened that night back in March 2016, just months after his rookie year concluded. Then maybe the whole organization would come out of it OK.

And therein’s the problem, as we assess the looming sanctions coming down on the 2015 No. 1 overall pick who’s heading into his fourth year as a pro.

Winston came into the league with a rep for being immature off the field. He was accused of sexual assault at Florida State (though he was never formally charged after reaching a settlement with the accusor). He was involved in two shoplifting incidents (he did 20 hours of community service to avoid charges in one and charges weren’t pressed in the other). And then, there was the suspension for the first half of a 2014 game against Clemson after he stood on a table at yelled an obscenity in the FSU student union.

The Bucs knew, like everyone else did, what the risk was in taking Winston as the No. 1 pick. Other teams picking in the upper reaches of the 2015 draft that did their homework on him did too—“It wasn’t terrible,” said one exec from one of those teams, “but he is who he is, not really the kind of kid you’d want as your franchise QB.”

And as for Winston himself, he knew full well that, because of the seriousness of the allegations he faced in college, he’d lost any benefit of the doubt he might have had previously. That’s just reality.

We’ll see if the suspension sticks. As of late last night, the Bucs still hadn’t been informed of the sanctions, which means the league’s process isn’t yet complete. And an appeal is still possible, but indications are that Winston may work with the league to put this behind him and the team.

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So here are five things to know …

1. After the Josh Brown situation in 2016, the league office is going to err on the side of caution in sexual assault cases. The Bucs felt like this was, very much, a he said/she said situation. But so was the Ezekiel Elliott case, and the Cowboys star wound up serving a six-game suspension. Where the Ray Rice/Adrian Peterson/Greg Hardy accusations of 2014 were the impetus for the implementation of the current policy on sexual assault, it was the mishandling of the Brown case two years ago (where damning evidence came into the public eye after the league sanctioned the Giants kicker) that pushed enforcement into high gear. So from the minute Lisa Friel and her crew launched this investigation, Winston was always going to have a high bar to clear to be exonerated.

NFL Investigating Jameis Winston for Allegedly Groping Uber Driver in 2016

2. The Bucs’ signing back of Ryan Fitzpatrick at a rate of $3.3 million makes sense now. Maybe Ryan Griffin wows everyone in camp and changes the equation, but for a team that sunk resources in winning in 2018 (trading for Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry, signing Ryan Jensen, etc.), having America’s pinch-hitter on board is important now. Tampa’s three-game start to the season doesn’t give the team much cushion—at New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh—and it wouldn’t be easy to rebound from a bad start in a very tough division

3. Jobs are on the line. If Jon Gruden had decided he wanted to stay home and coach in Tampa and not got to Oakland, there’s a pretty decent chance Dirk Koetter would already be gone. And after two years without a playoff berth, that puts him in the crosshairs going into the 2018 season. Many of his assistants are in contract years, making this year a critical one for the staff, and a logical one for ownership to make a clean break in if things go south. And this is GM Jason Licht’s fifth year in charge. If Koetter’s gone, would he get another coaching hire?

4. Winston’s not necessarily safe either. I don’t think the Bucs are going to move on him now, but it’s fair to ask whether this will affect their willingness to go through with his $20.922 million option for 2019. That money is guaranteed for injury only, and so if he can pass a physical in March, the team can cut him without penalty. Would they? Through three years, and 45 starts, he’s got a 69-44 TD-INT ratio and an 87.2 passer rating. Good, but not great numbers—and certainly not enough to make him complete safe if a new coach and/or GM is evaluating the organization top-to-bottom seven months from now, particularly with the standard pay on new deals for franchise quarterbacks now in the neighborhood of $30 million per year.

5. Things aren’t all bad with Winston. Last night, one coach told me that he’s been a “stud” as a teammate and a worker the last few years. He’s absolutely a leader there, and is dedicated to football, and has shown potential. So it’s easy to sit here today, in the wake of this news, and say “cut the cord”. Given how difficult it is to find a franchise quarterback, and the work the Bucs have put in with Winston, it’d be a lot hard to actually do it.