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Brutal Bucs opening schedule intensifies with Winston suspension

Jameis Winston

The NFL regular-season schedule contains just 16 games. There simply aren’t many three-game soft stretches where a team feels comfortable being without its clear-cut starting quarterback.

But that’s where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers find themselves after Thursday.

Quarterback Jameis Winston’s three-game suspension became official today and it will come at basically the worst point possible. Even though the Bucs knew there was a good chance this was coming for a while, Tampa Bay is now in the unenviable position of preparing for three playoff contenders without its field general.

They open the regular season on the road against the New Orleans Saints and then come home to take on the state of Pennsylvania: Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles first, then the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football.

Tampa Bay opens its four-game month of tune-ups with the Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans and Detroit Lions.

Can we swap a few of those? Just one?

Based on 2017 winning percentages, the Bucs must deal with the fourth toughest schedule in the NFL. Tampa Bay’s 16 opponents combined for a 136-120 record last year (.535 winning percentage). Those first three opponents tore through their regular seasons, all won their divisions, and posted a 37-11 combined record (.771 winning percentage).

Plenty can change from one year to the next, but chances are the Saints, Eagles and Steelers are playing competitive football in 2018.

And now the Bucs need to tackle that challenge without the face of the franchise. Whether or not some fans still want Wintson’s mug representing the home team is another issue. Some are getting increasingly worried a mugshot is coming next.

Let’s just stick to the football.

As of right now, the Bucs are rolling with backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The 14-year veteran started three straight games last year and saw extensive action in two others. The Bucs went 2-1 in his two starts, but beating the New York Jets and Dolphins while losing by 14 at the Atlanta Falcons doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.

His best effort probably came Week 6 in Arizona when he replaced Winston and somehow took a 31-0 blowout in the third quarter and turned it into a competitive game. Fitzpatrick finished with 1,103 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions on 96 of 163 passing (58.9 completion percentage).

Respectable numbers for a backup, but he’s a 35-year-old journeyman who turns 36 in November while playing on his seventh team. No one outside of Fitzpatrick and his immediate family want him starting for an NFL franchise full-time, and maybe some of those people are on the fence about it.

Winston is scheduled to return Week 4 for a road game against the Chicago Bears. Odds are against the Bucs starting 2-1 or 3-0. And even though he won’t be on the field for those three games, Winston will have to shoulder responsibility for that 1-2 or 0-3 hole. Week 1 is more than 10 weeks away but the 24-year-old started digging it long ago.

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