Bucs pass baton to Fitzpatrick against Panthers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have turned to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick over Jameis Winston in hopes of keeping their season alive on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Dirk Koetter: “We’re going to start Fitz at quarterback this week and it’s what we feel like we need to do"

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have played the Carolina Panthers in recent years, it has been a marquee matchup of young quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Cam Newton.

However, the Buccaneers have benched the struggling Winston in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick for Sunday’s game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

“We’re going to start Fitz at quarterback this week and it’s what we feel like we need to do this week to give ourselves the best chance,” Head coach Dirk Koetter said. “It’s just for right now.

“The most important thing we’ve got is this week so we’ll see how things go. I don’t like switching quarterbacks. That’s not in my makeup to switch quarterbacks but I just feel like we’ve got to make a switch at this time.”

It’s been a rocky season from the start for Winston, who was suspended for three games by the NFL for violating the player conduct policy when he inappropriately and without consent touched a female Uber driver in a sexual manner.

Winston returned and regained his spot in the starting lineup because as Koetter said, he “is a guy who will be here way longer than me and needs to be playing.”

However, Winston has completed 96 of 148 passes for 1,181 yards, and he has thrown only six touchdown passes with 10 interceptions in his three games this season.

Winston lost his job by throwing throwing four interceptions in a 37-34 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last week. His 10 picks this season are tied for the NFL lead with rookie Sam Darnold of the New York Jets and Case Keeenum of the Denver Broncos.

“If I knew exactly why, then I’d do everything I could to try to fix it,” Koetter said. “We wouldn’t be where we’re at right now. It’s just becoming a little bit too much of a trend and when it becomes that much of a trend when that’s the main thing that’s holding us back right now. We have plenty of other issues including coaching, (but) we just can’t lose the turnover (ratio) seven to zero in the last two games. We just can’t do that and expect to win.

“I think all quarterbacks — like pro golfers — why do some of the best golfers in the world struggle from time to time? I think Jameis is one of the best quarterbacks in the world and I think he will be back. For right now — we went over this the other day, all this stuff. A lot of teams don’t switch because they have an untested backup or they’re afraid to put their backup in there and we don’t have either of those. Right now, we just have to stop turning the ball over and so we’re going to go with Fitz. I still have plenty of confidence in Jameis moving forward.”

Fitzpatrick has completed 98 of 144 passes for 1,550 yards and 13 touchdowns with five interceptions.

The Buccaneers are 3-4 and fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive, and Koetter obviously believes this is the direction he needs to go at this time.

“Minus 13, last in the league in turnover ratio,” Koetter went on in explaining the switch. “Minus 13. We’re not getting any, that’s one thing. But minus-3 a week ago and minus-4 (against the Bengals). And that just can’t happen.”

While the Bucs are tied with the Atlanta Falcons for last in the NFC South, the Panthers (5-2) are one game behind the New Orleans Saints in the division.

Head coach Ron Rivera has taken note of the Buccaneers quarterback switch and it means a little extra work for him and his staff this week.

“We’ll prepare for both quarterbacks,” Rivera said. “We’ll prepare for what they do.”

Rivera doesn’t have to worry about his own quarterback because Newton is having another strong season, completing 158 of 238 passes for 1,646 yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions.

And looking at the series history, the Panthers might not have much to worry about with either quarterback playing for the Buccaneers.

Carolina leads the all-time series, 22-13, and won both games last year, although they were competitive. The Panthers won, 17-3, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa late in October, and held on for a 22-19 victory at home on Christmas Eve.

The teams play again on Dec. 2 in Tampa and if the Buccaneers’ season is not lost by then, it will be interesting to see who their starting quarterback is.