It would be nice to play well the next three games, but Jameis Winston knows there’s only one way to stop the not-so-quiet chatter about him and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking a step backward this year.
“You win,” said the young quarterback, dogged by lingering questions about his relationship with coach Dirk Koetter and what’s gone wrong in a season that will end with the Bucs (4-9) missing the playoffs again.
“The only way that you can stop all the stuff that is coming is you win. Winning takes all of us coming together as a team, and just applying it on the field and going out there and executing to get a win.”
That means starting Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons (8-5) — not waiting until next season.
The Bucs close with three consecutive games against NFC South rivals chasing playoff berths. Finishing strong not only would impact a tight division race, but also send a message to the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints.
“It’s not over yet. Everyone else can look at the win-loss column. As a team, we have to come together and keep playing,” Winston said.
“We control our destiny right now,” the 23-year-old added, “and it’ll be better with just nine in the loss column than 12.”
With Winston throwing for more than 4,000 yards for the second straight season, the Bucs heightened expectations for 2017 by going 9-7 — the club’s first winning record since 2010 — a year ago. Injuries, including a shoulder sprain that kept Winston out of three games and most of a fourth, contributed to a slow start this season.
An even bigger issue has been inconsistency on offense and defense.
Turnovers and poor decision making continue to hinder Winston’s progress. And now there’s speculation about his relationship with Koetter being strained. Player and coach deny there’s a problem.
Winston said speculation is rooted in the team’s record.
“It does concern me that something like that would come out. But, am I surprised? Of course not. I’m not surprised because when you lose, people always try to find something to nitpick and nag at,” Winston said.
“Attacking the relationship of a head coach and a quarterback is definitely a way to get this locker room kind of in a panic, but we don’t condone that at all,” Winston added. “Every one of our players stand firmly behind coach Koetter.”
Koetter was promoted from offensive coordinator to coach after Winston’s rookie year, in part because of the budding relationship between the two.
NFL Network was the first to report a possible rift, saying it stemmed from Winston feeling Koetter didn’t have his back while he was injured, and that the quarterback also was frustrated about the predictability of Tampa Bay’s offense.
“I think our relationship has been real consistent. ... But can there be stress? Is it possible? Sure,” Koetter said.
“We spend a lot of time together, players and coaches. So, coach to coach, coach to player, player to player when you spend as much time together as we do, of course there can be,” the coach added. “In specific, as far as my relationship with Jameis, it’s been really consistent throughout for the last three years.”
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft said at times he also had disagreements with his college coach, Jimbo Fisher, at Florida State, where Winston won the Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to a national championship.
“I wouldn’t use friction as a term. I believe when you are communicating with any player, you’re going to have some disagreements,” Winston said. “At the end of the day, as long as we come to a solid agreement and we are out there to win football games ... it really doesn’t matter.”
The way the Bucs finish the season, however, could determine whether Koetter gets to continue working with Winston. Tampa Bay has made four coaching changes since last making the playoffs in 2007.
Raheem Morris was given three years to try to get the franchise back on track. The last two hires before Koetter, Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith, were fired after two seasons.
Tumbling back into the NFC South cellar doesn’t necessarily mean the Bucs can’t change their fortunes quickly. Every season since the 12-team playoff format commenced in 1990, at least four teams have earned postseason berths after missing out the season before.
And with Philadelphia winning the NFC East this year, 14 times in the past 15 seasons a team has won its division after finishing in last place the previous year.
Koetter said Winston continues to “grow and get experience” necessary to develop into a top-notch pro.
“It’s a team game, so as our team has not done as well as we hoped to do this year, there is a lot on the quarterback when things aren’t going well,” Koetter said.
“It just takes some time,” the coach added. “I think Jameis is doing some things very well, and he is also some making some mistakes, as we all are, that we need to improve on.”