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 was 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 NFL with a reputation of immaturity, and many teams were concerned with the idea of making him the face of a franchise. Winston was accused of sexual assault while at Florida State, though he was never formally charged and he reached a settlement with the accusor. He was the subject of two shoplifting incidents—he had to complete 20 hours of community service to avoid criminal charges from one, and the restaurant didn’t press charges in the other—and he was suspended for the first half of his final collegiate game against rival Clemson after he stood on a table at the FSU student union and yelled an obscenity.
The Buccaneers brass took all of this in account when they pulled the trigger and pushed their job security to the middle of the table by taking Winston atop the draft. They knew, like everyone else did, that Winston had some growing up to do—and that’s why it’s hard to have sympathy for anyone in this case. Winston had to know he couldn’t afford to put himself in harm’s way, and Tampa Bay knew who they were getting when they decided to take him over Marcus Mariota and everyone else three years ago.
It’s also why, for everyone, the stakes were just raised on 2018.
We’ll see if there’s anymore wiggle room for Winston to negotiate the suspension down from three games—as of late last night, the Bucs still hadn’t been given notice of anything from the league. If it sticks at three games, Tampa will be looking at New Orleans, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Ryan Fitzpatrick running the show, and facing the prospect of losing ground quickly in one of the NFL’s deepest divisions.
What we know is that this is a critical season for coach Dirk Koetter and GM Jason Licht. If Jon Gruden wanted the Bucs job, rather than the one in Oakland, there’s a pretty decent chance Koetter would be out already. And it’s tough to imagine Licht, who’s in his fifth year in charge, survive another coaching change if things go south.
It’s also an important season for Winston himself. The team exercised Winston’s option for 2019, at an injury-guaranteed rate of $20.922 million. If he struggles and makes it through the year healthy, the Bucs can walk away without any cap ramifications next March. And if there’s change at the top of the football operation, he’d be even more vulnerable, in that a new coach and/or GM would be far less invested in him.
Conversely, the solution for Licht, Koetter and Winston is pretty simple. Assuming there’s no change in the sanctions, they have to tread water through the first few weeks and win enough over the first couple months to contend deep into the season.
Easy? It hasn’t been over the last few years.
Winston has always been good inside the building, and is now firmly established as a leader of the team. But that lingering feeling he needed to grow up never really went away. Given his history, it’s hard to be surprised by this—and to let anyone off the hook, Winston included.