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Jameis Winston's suspension raises questions for Buccaneers

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston has been suspended for the first three games of the regular season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, the league announced Thursday. NFL Network's Tom Pelissero later reported that Winston will not appeal the ban. Gregg Rosenthal examines the implications -- immediate and long-term -- for Winston and the Bucs.

Losing a franchise quarterback for any stretch of time is a problem. Losing one during a historically difficult opening stretch -- with jobs on the line -- looks particularly daunting.

That's what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are facing with this three-game suspension, which stems from an alleged groping incident of a female Uber driver in Scottsdale, Arizona, back in March 2016. The NFL began an investigation on Nov. 17, 2017.

The suspension raises questions about the organization as a whole and Winston's future leading it. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht already entered this year on the hot seat after the "Hard Knocks" darlings underperformed by winning only five games last season. Even before this suspension, Winston had plenty of growing left to do on the field with his potential second contract looming.

Those are some of the big-picture problems, but the immediate concern for Koetter's staff will be an opening slate of games rather cruelly administered by the Football Gods.

Can the Bucs survive September?

The Buccaneers' first three games are against the Saints, Eagles and Steelers, who all won their division last season and combined to go 37-11. While strength-of-schedule analysis can be overrated, it's impossible to ignore that trifecta, which comprises the toughest opening three games for any team in the Super Bowl era.

Don't pencil Tampa Bay in for 0-3 just yet, however. In Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Buccaneers have one of the most experienced backup quarterbacks in football. He played 299 snaps last regular season for Tampa when Winston missed time because of a shoulder injury, with the Bucs winning two of Fitzpatrick's three starts. He knows the offense and he's made it this far with a rare confidence that exceeds his arm strength.

Fitzpatrick's performance with the Bucs was his career in a nutshell. There were some wild hot streaks, like when he nearly led the team all the way back from a 31-0 deficit against the Cardinals. There were prolonged ugly stretches against the Jets and Falcons where the Bucs could barely move the ball. There was ultimately one excellent start -- against Miami -- and enough help from Fitzpatrick's teammates to steal a few wins, which is what the Bucs need to happen again.

Even without Winston, this is a passing attack loaded with talent. The wide receiver group goes four deep with quality and there are two dynamic tight ends in Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. Tampa's lackluster defense loaded up on D-linemen this offseason, and the Bucs will be at home for their games against the Eagles and Steelers. A 1-2 start with this schedule is enough to keep the team's season afloat.

On paper, that shouldn't be that monumental a task. But this is a franchise that has looked better on paper than in reality for an uncomfortable amount of time.

Koetter and Licht in the spotlight

There will likely be a group of casual fans who watch the Bucs play in Week 1 and think, Wait, Dirk Koetter is STILL their coach?

Expected to be fired after last season, Koetter appeared to get a reprieve when Jon Gruden chose to hold his reunion tour in Oakland rather than Tampa. There might not be another coach in the league with as much pressure to win now as Koetter, who got the job partly because of his early success developing Winston as his offensive coordinator.

Koetter will have to navigate a training camp that gets Fitzpatrick ready to start the opening of the season, while also preparing Winston to start the rest of the year. (The Bucs also have 28-year-old quarterback Ryan Griffin, someone they liked enough to sign to an extension last August.) The September games will have added pressure, with Koetter knowing that a slow start to the year could potentially get him fired during the season.

The suspension is an opportunity for Koetter to show he can overcome a major obstacle and showcase a roster built by Licht with a lot of star power. There are potential weaknesses in the secondary and along the offensive line, but winning a few games without Winston would prove this is not a depth chart to be trifled with. If the Bucs collapse this year after spending so much money in the offseason, however, ownership could wonder about Licht's stewardship of the team since taking over in 2014. That stretch has included 22 wins, 42 losses and zero playoff appearances.

Licht is joined at the hip with Winston, and it's still on the quarterback to prove Licht right about the wisdom of taking him first overall in 2015.

A crossroads for Winston

This is an especially disappointing personal setback when it comes to Winston, considering all the off-field questions he was forced to answer leading up to the NFL draft. Winston vehemently denied the initial report -- and no charges were filed -- before providing a vague apology to the Uber driver on Thursday. And this suspension comes before a crucial year for the young quarterback.

After three seasons, Winston has proven that he's a dynamic player prone to turnovers. He looks like a league-average starting quarterback at worst and is still only 24 years old, but he's yet to enjoy a breakout season as a consistent difference maker. "Hard Knocks" shined a positive light on Winston as an engaging personality and leader, but availability is a key component to leadership. Missing the start of his fourth season puts Winston at a crossroads in his career, just as conversation about his next contract was bubbling up.

The Buccaneers picked up the fifth-year option in Winston's rookie contract for 2019 and it's hard to imagine him playing anywhere else, anytime soon. But this suspension comes with caveats.

"A failure either to obtain the evaluation or to cooperate with treatment will result in further discipline," the league said in a statement. "In addition, a future violation of the personal conduct policy will result in more substantial discipline, including a potential ban from the NFL."

That helps to highlight Winston's precarious status moving forward. He is at risk of being kicked out of the league if another incident ever occurs, an uncertainty that would seemingly put any contract extension on hold. Winston also has a lot of development left to accomplish on the field with his decision making, a lot of potential as yet unrealized.

This was already going to be a tense season in Tampa. The suspension only further clouds whether Koetter and Licht -- or any future Bucs employees -- will be the men to guide Winston through the next stage of a career that is off to an uneven start.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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