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Unable to shoulder Winston injury, Bucs floundered

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The Sports Xchange
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston gets ready to pass during a game against the New Orleans Saints in November. Photo by AJ Sisco/UPI
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston gets ready to pass during a game against the New Orleans Saints in November. Photo by AJ Sisco/UPI | License Photo

INDIANAPOLIS -- The defense had no pass rush. They couldn't run the football. The kicking game was bad. But the single biggest factor in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 5-11 season was the shoulder injury to quarterback Jameis Winston.

Although it's unlikely the team would do anything different with the information they had at the time, the decision to play Winston three games after his injury was probably a mistake.

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"We feel like we are very, very close," Bucs general manager Jason Licht said Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "I know the season didn't show that with five wins. But we had a quarterback who was in a lot of pain on a throwing shoulder. As we sit back and look at it now, a lot of throws he couldn't make affected our offense. Jameis is a super-competitive guy."

After suffering the injury on a hit by Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones, Winston started the next three games (at Buffalo, home against the Panthers, at New Orleans). Tampa Bay lost them all.

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But when Winston returned after missing three games, he was a much better quarterback, throwing with more velocity and accuracy, despite the team winning only one of its final five games. Winston finished 3-10 as a starter.

"We didn't close out games well," Licht said. "And if I had to point to two things, one, the pain that Jameis was going through, and an inability to close out games and turnovers. ... I think (the injury) affected his play."

Head coach Dirk Koetter said it's hard to sit a starter when he has been cleared by the medical staff.

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"As far as Jameis specifically, it's hard to say exactly, 'OK, on this play, this play, this play, is that a shoulder issue?'" Koetter said. "There's no doubt ... the shoulder injury affected Jameis for a stretch of the season until he sat down, and I think he showed when he did come back those last few games that when he's healthy, he's really good."

The Bucs had other issues besides Winston's injury. They struggled in the red zone, scoring 49.1 percent of the time when they were inside the opponent's 20-yard line, a percentage that ranked 24th in the 32-team league.

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"On the irritation level, it's proven time and time again that turnovers are No. 1," Koetter said. "Just turnovers in general. ... There were four teams, maybe five, that scored 60 percent in the red zone. We were 49 percent. We had 53 possessions in the red zone. We were down there seventh most in the league. So if you're getting down there ... you can spin these stats any way you want."

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Koetter took responsibility as a play-caller for not helping his team win close games. The Bucs also had trouble protecting leads due to their inability to rush the passer, finishing last in the NFL with 22 sacks.

"The No. 1 thing I have to do better is I have to help our guys figure out ... a way to win," Koetter said. "I've got this chart of one-score games this guy did for us. We tied for the most one-score games, 10. There was one team that had more one-score games. For the teams that had that many, we had the lowest winning percentage, 3-7 in one-score games.

"I think Atlanta was 6-4; 6-4 versus 3-7. They're in the playoffs, we're not. And of those one-score games, some of those are division games as well."

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--The Bucs decision to fire defensive line coach Jay Hayes was only surprising by its timing. It came six weeks after the season ended and after they had picked up the one-year option on his contract. But after the team finished last with 22 sacks, something needed to be done.

Koetter said he was impressed by Brentson Buckner's success at Arizona, especially with lesser-known players.

"We interviewed several guys for the D-line job and the thing that stood out to me -- because I didn't know Brentson -- first of all, I'm always a fan of ex-players who go into coaching because it's a hard transition," Koetter said. "A lot of guys don't want to do that after they've had successful careers as a player. But we played against Arizona multiple times since he's been there. Everybody recognizes Chandler Jones leading the league in sacks. Or Calais Campbell going on and playing well after he was there. But what jumped out to me is Brentson has had success with guys who maybe haven't been star players and have gone to Arizona as free agents or as rookies and have maybe played a little bit above where they played before.

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"That jumped out at me. Some guys I knew that we played against on other teams and all of sudden they go to Arizona and wow, that guy is playing pretty good. There must be a reason for that. When Brentson came in and interviewed, he did a really nice job."

--There is very little the Bucs don't like about quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. He went 2-1 as a starter. He was a great mentor for Jameis Winston. And, well, that beard!

"We like Ryan a lot," Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. "We thought Ryan did a great job. Obviously, when he had to play, he did a nice job for us. But, obviously in the locker room and in the quarterback room, he and Jameis formed a really good bond. We would love to have Ryan back."

With Winston under investigation by the NFL for allegations that he groped a female Uber driver in Arizona in 2016, the No. 2 quarterback becomes a higher priority.

The Bucs also have Ryan Griffin, who has never taken a regular-season NFL snap in a game.

One intriguing name to watch: Mike Glennon, who will be released by the Chicago Bears before the start of the new league year March 14, according to general manager Ryan Pace.

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Glennon, who was guaranteed $18 million when he signed with the Bears, became expendable with the development of Mitchell Trubisky. Glennon will almost certainly try to land a spot on a team where he can compete for the starting job, and that's not Tampa Bay.

"There will be options for other quarterbacks as well, and I'm not saying that we're going to be signing Ryan (Fitzpatrick) today to a contract," Licht said.

"So, investigation or not, we want a quarterback who can play and start."

Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter also was quick to point out that No. 3 quarterback Ryan Griffin is under contract for 2018. Regardless of Winston's legal matters, the Bucs need to find their Nick Foles.

"I wouldn't say because of the investigation," Koetter said. "You can lose your starting quarterback at any time. So the backup quarterback is pretty important."

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