TAMPA — Jameis Winston gives the Bucs the best chance to win each game. If he is healthy enough, he plays. Thirty-nine straight games, this has been true. It's the Bucs and Winston. They're as inseparable as a man and his shadow.
But Winston is hurt. The only thing anybody debates is the degree to which it affects his performance.
He suffered an AC sprain in his right throwing shoulder and had to leave the Bucs' game at Arizona on Oct. 15. They trailed 24-0 at the time and lost 38-35 after a furious rally led by veteran backup Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The past two weeks, Winston hasn't been cleared to throw until Friday. That means he misses the heavy game-planning work on Wednesday and Thursday.
The first week with the injury, it didn't seem to hurt Winston at Buffalo when he passed for 384 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. He gave the Bucs a lead with just more than three minutes to play, but the defense collapsed and they lost 30-27.
Then came Sunday. On a blustery day, he missed a lot of throws he normally makes. He went 21-of-38 for 210 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. He also lost a fumble.
"Yeah, it was not Jameis' best game," coach Dirk Koetter said Monday. "… Jameis missed some throws that he normally makes."
The question the Bucs are dealing with: If Winston cannot practice, should they shut him down? Should they sit him against the Saints on Sunday, give his shoulder a week or two off to possibly heal and go with Fitzpatrick?
The belief by some is that while Winston got away with not practicing much before the Bills game, it may have hurt his timing and precision against Carolina.
"I can't explain why he would play so well at Buffalo and miss some throws" Sunday, Koetter said. "The one thing that was different was it was much windier. That was about as windy of a game that I've been in in a long time in the NFL. I'm not sure how much that affected him."
So is there any scenario where if Winston is cleared to play, the Bucs would considering not starting him?
"There's three factors in that," Koetter said. "First and foremost is what the medical staff says. That's for every player. Jameis is at the front of the list. Second is the player. The player knows if he can go or not. And then third, when we're watching practice, if it doesn't look like they can go or it looks like they can't go at a success rate good enough for us to win. … But we haven't had any of those things."
Here are the pros and cons of whether to play Winston.
The Bucs are 2-5, and although they have played only one game against an NFC South opponent, it's unrealistic to think they will catch fire and win seven or eight of their last nine.
Winston insists on taking all the reps in practice when healthy, so he obviously values the preparation. There are open receivers he is missing. Fitzpatrick can put the Bucs in position to beat the Saints and/or the Jets on Nov. 12. Let the shoulder heal.
While the Bucs don't want to give up on the season, they also can't run the risk of Winston further injuring his shoulder. It may make the rest of the players do their jobs instead of waiting for Winston to bail them out.
It's a different injury, but look at where the Colts are with quarterback Andrew Luck. He has not taken a snap since Week 17 last season and had surgery on a torn labrum Jan. 15. He returned to practice Oct. 4, and the Colts had to shut him down again due to additional soreness.
Winston is always going to say he can play until someone tells him he can't. What's more, who can blame the Bucs for a poor record at the end of the season if they lost their No. 1 quarterback?
Maybe Winston is Brett Favre in more ways than anyone realizes. Maybe he will never miss a game in his career. Maybe he gets the Bucs a win at New Orleans, back to 3-5 where they were a year ago and they go on an unbelievable run.
It's Halloween, not Thanksgiving. A lot of football left to be played.
Defensive tackle Chris Baker remembers being on the 2012 Redskins who were 3-6 and won their last seven games to win the NFC East.
Koetter made it clear there is no decision on whether Winston will play this week.
"As far as moving forward, you know, nothing will be decided on that until Wednesday based on what the medical staff says and how Jameis feels," he said.