Career is at a crossroads: Jameis Winston returns for Bucs

CHICAGO -- Surrendering six touchdowns to Mitch Trubisky might have been the real issue for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their 48-10 loss to the Chicago Bears, but what the team does with quarterback Jameis Winston will affect the state of the franchise for much, much longer.

The Bucs had planned to give Ryan Fitzpatrick the start Sunday and use their Week 5 bye to re-evaluate. Instead, Fitzpatrick struggled, and Winston entered for the second half. Though he didn't fare a whole lot better statistically, Winston did give the Bucs a spark, throwing a fourth-quarter touchdown to tight end Cameron Brate. He also threw two interceptions.

"They made a nice play on that last interception, but [Winston stood] in there and protected [the football] and [got] back to playing against an NFL defense at NFL speed," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "We needed to see that. That was good for us."

It will help the Bucs' coaching staff when it makes its decision on a starting quarterback for Week 6, although Koetter indicated that Winston did enough to earn his job back.

"Probably," Koetter said. "But we'll worry about that for a different day."

Assuming Winston does get the nod for the Bucs' remaining 12 regular-season games, he is entering arguably the most critical point of his career. The three-game suspension he received for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy in the wake of an NFL investigation into accusations that he groped a female Uber driver in March 2016 did more than cost him $124,411 of his $705,000 base salary for 2018. It put him at a crossroads as far as who he is as a quarterback and, more important, as a man.

In his fourth year in the NFL, he is 18-27 as a starter. In 45 games, he has turned the ball over 61 times -- second most of any player in the league since 2015 -- throwing 46 interceptions and losing 15 fumbles. Although he did help lead the Bucs to a 9-7 record in 2016, he has yet to take them to the postseason.

The Bucs haven't reached the playoffs since 2007, and Winston was drafted No. 1 overall in 2015. There is an expectation of excellence, and though he has shown glimpses -- with arguably his best games coming at the end of last season after he healed from a shoulder injury -- he's not consistently there yet.

Off the field, he's been accused of sexually assaulting two women -- at Florida State in 2012 and the Uber driver in March 2016. He was never charged with a crime, but he reached a settlement with his Florida State accuser in December 2016 and now faces a civil suit with the Uber driver.

The NFL's letter to Winston regarding his suspension warned: "A future violation of the personal conduct policy will result in more substantial discipline, including a potential ban from the NFL."

At a time in his life that should be the most joyous -- having a son who is now 3 months old and planning a wedding with fiancée Breion Allen -- Winston has had to defend his character and faces having the NFL taken away from him.

"I'm going to have to teach [my son] how to respect women and how to live his day-to-day life," Winston said back in July. "I really took it upon myself to be proactive and make sure that I'm being a great example for him and my fiancée."

In addition to the suspension hurting his reputation in the community, it has prolonged the negotiating period for a contract extension and took away leverage he might have parlayed into a $100 million-plus deal.

Now he has to fight for that, which he'll do with the help of new agent Joel Segal, whom he hired this week after interviewing several candidates over the summer. (Winston fired previous agents Greg Genske and Kenny Felder right after he was suspended.)

By playing him right now, the Bucs are sending a message that Winston can be the future of this franchise. Though there has been no indication the Bucs are considering dumping him, they aren't financially obligated to see this thing through.

Winston is owed $20.9 million next season as part of his fifth-year option. His option is guaranteed for injury only until 4 p.m. ET on March 13, 2019. If Winston plays these next 12 weeks and suffers a significant injury and can't pass a physical, the Bucs would have to foot the bill. Otherwise, they could cut him with no salary-cap implications.

Assuming they do keep Winston -- he is essentially delaying his big payout. Oftentimes when a team picks up the fifth-year option on a contract, it's really in the process of doing a long-term deal. That's what happened with Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans, who was rewarded with a five-year extension worth $82.5 million prior to his fifth season.

The delay not only hurts Winston but teammates, too. With no new deal, the Bucs would carry a $20.9 million cap hit next season. A new deal could lower the cap charge and possibly allow them to re-sign offensive linemen Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith and linebacker Kwon Alexander, who are all finishing their fourth years and looking for new deals.

"I feel I've just got to keep getting better," Winston said.