CHICAGO — The Buccaneers found themselves in an unprecedented quarterback situation this week. Franchise QB Jameis Winston missed the first three games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, and while starting in his place, journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick got off to am incredibly hot start, putting up historically big numbers in the Tampa Bay offense. In Winston’s first game back from suspension, the Bucs chose to start Fitzpatrick instead of the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2015—until Fitzpatrick was benched at halftime, handing Winston his starting job back. As this all took place in Chicago, we watched Winston’s every move. (All times in Central Standard Time.)
10:33 a.m.: Jameis Winston bursts out of the tunnel and determinedly jogs onto the field, heading down the sideline to the south side of the field where his teammates are warming up. He’s wearing a gray vest, a red long sleeve shirt and his white uniform pants. It’s his first time running onto a field on a gameday this season, and he looks relaxed and happy. He hugs a young Bucs fan on the sideline and then gets to work throwing easy passes to a Tampa Bay staffer.
10:38 a.m.: Winston backs up to the fifty-yard line and launches several deep passes into the corners of the end zone.
10:46 a.m: Working alongside third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin, Winston works on his dropbacks from under center. Presumed starter Ryan Fitzpatrick (head coach Dirk Koetter did not formally announce a starting quarterback this week) warmed up earlier in the morning and is not on the field. After a few reps to finish out the 15-minute warmup, Winston runs off the field, in perfect stride with Griffin.
11:24 a.m.: Now dressed in full pads, Winston runs back onto the field and begins to throw alongside Fitzpatrick, and the two quarterbacks trade off taking reps with the offense. The team huddles up on the field, and Winston breaks it with a chant. He runs in front of the team, leading the way off the field. Even though he’s likely not starting, he’s back into his role as vocal team leader.
11:52 a.m.: With his team, Winston runs back out of tunnel and straight into the south endzone to pray before the start of the game. He points both index fingers up and looks skyward.
12:07 p.m.: The Bears score a touchdown on their opening drive—the first of six. Winston begins to clap, hoping to build some energy on the Bucs sideline, and slaps the hands and butts of all the guys on the extra-point coverage team. Tampa Bay defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul talks to Winson, presumably about what he just saw from the Bears offense. Winston nods in understanding.
12:09 p.m.: The Bucs offense takes the field for the first time today with Fitzpatrick as the starter, and Winston clips a headset radio pack onto his waist. He’s firmly in backup quarterback mode—headset on and no helmet in sight.
12:13 p.m.: After Fitzpatrick’s offense goes three-and-out on the first drive, Winston meets Fitzpatrick and QBs coach Mike Bajakian on the bench, and he leans in close to review pictures of the drive on their sideline Microsoft Surface.
12:26 p.m.: Tampa Bay’s offense comes off the field after a second drive that lasted six plays and went just 14 yards. Winston jogs over to the offensive linemen and fist bumps each one of them, working his way down the bench. He may not be playing, but damned if he won’t be helpful in some way to his team. “Even if he is playing or not, he is going to be super involved, that is just his personality,” says backup offensive center Evan Smith. “He wants to know everything, he wants the most information so if he gets in, he can have viable info that has been given to him and he can use it while he's out there.”
12:35 p.m.: The Bears score again, going up 14–0. Winston hops up off the bench and high-fives the Bucs offense before they head onto the field, hoping to provide a spark for the next drive.
12:50 p.m.: Chicago scores again. It’s Mitchell Trubisky’s third passing touchdown, and Pierre-Paul is not happy about it. The defense huddles around him as he crouches to the ground and yells out a fiery speech—from the edge of the defensive huddle, Winston leans in and nods as Pierre-Paul angrily gestures.
12:55 p.m.: On the next drive, Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack sacks Fitzpatrick on third down and forces him to fumble. The Bucs recover the ball, but the team punts on fourth down. Winston slaps each of his offensive teammates on the back when they reach the sideline.
1:24 p.m.: Fitzpatrick throws an interception to Bears safety Eddie Jackson. Winston doesn’t immediately follow Fitzpatrick to review the plays, instead giving the QB a minute of space.
1:37 p.m.: At halftime, the Bears lead the Bucs 38–3. Head coach Dirk Koetter informs Winston that he will starting the second half, but doesn’t make a big announcement to the team. “[Koetter] told me, ‘Hey, my gut feeling is to go with you,’” Winston said post-game. “‘Go out there and don't take too many hits. Give the ball a chance.’”
Winston doesn’t deliver any kind of dramatic halftime rallying speech. “There wasn't any amount of words you could have said at halftime,” Smith said. “Rah-rah isn't what you need. Sometimes you just need action.”
1:47 p.m.: When the Buccaneers return to the field after halftime, Winston runs out wearing his helmet this time. Fitzpatrick does not put his helmet on, a sign that’s been benched after completing only half of his 18 passes, for a passer rating of 49.8.
1:51 p.m.: Winston starts the second half by handing off the ball to Peyton Barber for a loss of two yards. He then hits receivers for short completions on the next five plays and converts a fourth-and-one. Just when it seems like the Bucs offense might be back to life, with Winston under center, Mack hits Winston as he throws, and the pass wobbles deep down the middle of the field and into the waiting hands of Chicago linebacker Danny Trevathan. Winston runs off the field and heads directly for the bench, where he and Bajakian immediately review the drive.
2:03 p.m.: Trubisky throws his sixth touchdown pass of the day, a short pass to receiver Taylor Gabriel in the right corner of the end zone (a Bears’ team record). During the play, Winston casually plays catch with Bucs tight end Cameron Brate on the sideline. “Jameis is a burst of energy … But when you're down by 40 points, there is not a whole lot he can do,” Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson said after the game.
2:29 p.m: Winston converts another fourth down attempt, this time hitting receiver Chris Godwin with an 11-yard pass on fourth-and-three to bring the Bucs to the Bears 16-yard line. On the next play, Winston throws a touchdown pass to Brate in the middle of the end zone. After the extra point is good, he runs out onto the field to high-five every player on the kicking unit.
2:58 p.m.: Bears linebacker Aaron Lynch picks off Winston on a pass intended for Brate, and this game is now totally cooked. Final score: 48–10.
After the game, Winston reminds his teammates that they’ve been in this position before. “I said, ‘Hey, remember this time last year, headed into the bye week with the Patriots?” Winston said. “‘That was a game that we felt like we should have won, like last week with Pittsburgh, that was a game we should have won. So let’s take advantage of this bye week, look in the mirror and let's go to work.’”
3:16 p.m.: Tampa Bay’s locker room is dead after the loss, so much that players don’t even want to look at each other. Winston quietly and slowly puts on his post-game suit: a dark blue checked pants and jacket, white button-down shirt, black tie. Meanwhile, Koetter is vocally coping with the loss in his post-game interview room next door. “We should fire every person that was on that field today starting with me,” he tells reporters. “That was horrific.”
Receiver DeSean Jackson avoids questions about who should quarterback the team going forward. Fitzpatrick answers only a few questions and says he told Winston to, “go out there and do your thing,” when Winston took over in the second half.
3:37 p.m.: Winston takes the podium and humbly answers questions about his performance, admitting, “I’ve played better.” Trubisky’s passer rating of 123.8 was better than both Winston’s (74.0) and Fitzpatrick’s (49.8) combined. Yes, Winston threw two interceptions, but he was responsible for the Bucs lone touchdown in the game, and was clearly a team leader even when he wasn’t directing the offense.
Even after such an embarrassing loss, Winston can’t hide his happiness to be playing again. “It felt great just to be back out there with my teammates,” he said, smiling. “It was different then going against virtually nobody.”
When asked if he thinks he’s done enough to hold on to the starting job, and Winston smartly avoids the question. “I have to do better, but that's a question for coach or GM,” he says. “We are going to put this game behind us.” Asked the same question a few minutes earlier, Koetter answered, “Probably, but we’ll worry about that another day.” He stressed that Fitzpatrick didn’t lose the game for Tampa Bay either. The Buccaneers have a bye next week, but it seems clear Fitzpatrick’s magic is gone. This is Winston’s team again.