Bucs' Fitzpatrick faces familar foe in Jets
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be without injured Jameis Winston on Sunday, but that creates an intriguing quarterback storyline for the game against the New York Jets at Raymond James Stadium.
With Winston sidelined for a minimum of two weeks because of a nagging shoulder injury, the sliding Bucs (2-6) will turn to 13-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in a bid to end their five-game losing skid.
Fitzpatrick played the past two seasons with the Jets. In 2015, he set a New York franchise record with 31 touchdown passes.
"It's very ironic," said Fitzpatrick, who will be without the team's leading receiver, Mike Evans, suspended by the NFL for one game.
"My career has been a roller coaster, and this is another example. You never want to see anyone get hurt, but I'm going to enjoy the challenge on Sunday."
Meanwhile, the Jets (4-5) are led by 15-year veteran Josh McCown, who has sparkled during New York's surprising season. McCown has completed 70.4 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
McCown was Tampa Bay's primary quarterback in 2014, when he went 1-10 as a starter and the Bucs finished 2-14, leading to the drafting of Winston as the No. 1 overall pick in 2015.
"That was a really rough year," McCown said. "For me, (this weekend) will be like it's just another trip. I've kind of moved on past that, and obviously I've done that with different stops and different places in my career, and I've had practice at it. It will just be another game."
The Fitzpatrick vs. the Jets angle could be another story, although New York coach Todd Bowles was quick to downplay any possibilities.
"Fitz was good when he was here," Bowles said. "We're going down to play the Buccaneers, not Fitzpatrick. So we're going to prepare like a normal week and try to go down and get a win.
"It's a different scheme (that Fitzpatrick is playing in). You're more playing the scheme than you are the player. He's familiar with us as well as we're familiar with him. But he's got 52 guys behind him, and we're (in) a different time and have tweaked some things since he has been gone. So it's a little different for both parties."
Fitzpatrick, playing for his seventh different NFL team, has seen significant action in just two games this season.
On Oct. 15, when Winston was sidelined after spraining the AC joint on his right throwing shoulder against the Cardinals, Fitzpatrick nearly pulled out an improbable victory. The Bucs, trailing 31-0 early in the third quarter, rallied furiously and forced Arizona to hang on for a 38-33 victory. Fitzpatrick passed for 290 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions.
On Sunday in a 30-10 loss at New Orleans, Winston was pulled during the first half after aggravating the injury. Fitzpatrick completed 8 of 15 passes for 68 yards and produced Tampa Bay's only touchdown on an 8-yard pass to tight end Luke Stocker.
After seeing the results of an MRI exam on Winston's shoulder, the Bucs opted to give the Florida State product a few weeks of rest and inactivity.
The Bucs have lost four straight since Winston's injury, scoring just a combined nine points in the first half of those games.
"(The doctors) feel like he needs to rest a couple weeks, and that's what's going to happen," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "His health comes first."
Even on the bench, Winston became embroiled in controversy against the Saints.
During the third quarter, Winston came onto the field and poked New Orleans rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore in the back of the helmet, prompting Lattimore to shove Winston.
That led to a response from Evans, who got a running start and hit Lattimore from behind, flattening him and starting a fracas between players from both teams. Saints coach Sean Payton was furious that Evans wasn't immediately ejected.
Evans received a one-game suspension from the NFL on Monday for "violations of unsportsmanlike conduct and unnecessary roughness."
"Totally unacceptable behavior, first by Jameis and then by Mike," Koetter said.
Evans, a Pro Bowl selection last season, said he was wrong with his reaction, noting that his actions were "childish" and "unprofessional."
Winston and Evans lead a group of Tampa Bay players who could be absent against the Jets. Missing practice on Wednesday were offensive tackle Donovan Smith (knee) and right offensive tackle Demar Dotson (hamstring). Defensive end Will Gholston is out with a neck injury, while cornerback Brent Grimes hopes to return after missing two games with a pulled muscle in his right shoulder and back.
The Jets are without receiver Jeremy Kerley, who was hit with a four-game suspension for a performance-enhancing-drug violation.
Otherwise, the Jets are on the upswing after defeating the Buffalo Bills 34-21 last Thursday to snap a three-game losing streak. New York's record could be better than 4-5, considering the Jets blew a two-touchdown lead in the final 12 minutes and lost 31-28 against the Miami Dolphins.
However, New York's performance against Buffalo, which featured seven sacks and 194 rushing yards, restored some optimism.
"I think the statement we made (against the Bills) is we can be one of the premier defenses in the league if we keep the consistency," Jets linebacker Jordan Jenkins said.
As for the Bucs, regardless of their injury situation, the confidence appears shaky.
"Frustrated, disappointed, confused," Koetter said in assessing the feeling around his team. "The mood that you would expect from a team that had very high expectations and has lost five in a row."
Updated November 8, 2017