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THE WEAKEST LINK? Saints Can Start 2018 Season Off With a Bang vs. Buccaneers Back-Up QB Ryan Fitzpatrick

Last season at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting QB Jameis Winston spent his Sunday afternoon in a NFC South Divisional contest struggling against the Saints defense, before eventually being lifted in favor of long-time NFL veteran and back-up Buccaneers QB Ryan Fitzpatrick during a 30-10 loss to New Orleans in early November.

However, when the two teams meet up again in NOLA in 8 more days from now — during the Saints 2018 Season Opener on September 9th at the Dome — Winston won't even get the chance to participate, as the NFL imposes a 3-game suspension on the young star for violating the League's personal conduct policy.

Photo courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

An eight-month investigation by the league resulted in the suspension, which even now could still be extended if he doesn't completely finish the undisclosed requirements of the agreement.

Because of the suspension, Winston will play only one home game in the first nine weeks of the season, with four of his first five games after the suspension coming on the road. He will be eligible to make his season debut when he's reinstated from NFL suspension in Week #4 (Sept. 30th when the Bucs play at Chicago).

However, as reporter Chris Wessling noted yesterday: Winston's strong showing in the recently-just-completed 2018 NFL Pre-Season action won't guarantee that he will win back the starting job.

Winston completed 73.2 percent of his passes for 388 yards (9.5 yards per attempt) with 3 passing TD's and zero interceptions, in a very impressive Pre-Season showing.

But Wessling says that although Winston had an equally impressive 126.9 passer rating in those Pre-Season games, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht disputes the notion by some that the former Florida State University star and 2015 NFL Draft #1 overall pick will simply be handed the Bucs #1 QB role when he rejoins his teammates.

But what it also means for Tampa Bay's season opening game at the Superdome against the Saints one week from tomorrow — and particularly for the Saints defense — is that Winston has been replaced as the starting Bucs QB by Fitzpatrick.

MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times

There's a reason why Fitzpatrick is a backup quarterback, which is that he's just not good enough to be a starter.

The Saints can certainly relate to that sort of dilemma themselves, after seeing enough of Tom Savage that it convinced them to trade for former Vikings starting QB and Jets back-up Teddy Bridgewater a few days ago.

The 35-year old Fitzpatrick has started 119 NFL games and went 2-1 in three starts last season, but the two victories that he had were against fellow League bottom-dwellers the Jets and Dolphins. The Bucs finished the 2017 season with a (5-11) win-loss record.

Fitzpatrick has developed a reputation (fair or unfair, depending on how you choose to look at it) as one of the League's worst veteran back-up QB's, particularly with throwing costly interceptions in potential game-winning situations.

Nevertheless, the Bucs were still pleased enough with Fitzpatrick's double-digit years of experience that they re-signed him earlier this year to a one-year, $3.3 million deal to give themselves some veteran stability; and likely also because he was actually somewhat careful with the ball last year — throwing just one interception in the 115 passes he attempted.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Fitzpatrick, originally drafted in the 7th Round of the 2005 NFL Draft out of Harvard University by the then-St. Louis Rams, is now in his 14th NFL season; and has played for the Rams, Bengals, Bills (where his first starting gig came), Titans, Texans, New York Jets, and now Tampa Bay.

“Just look at his experience, not only as a player but he’s been in a lot of rooms and a lot of systems,” Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter told reporters last week. “He’s great for [Winston], heck he’s great for me. I enjoy talking to Ryan. He’s got really good input on situational football like we did today. He’s a lot of fun to have in there.”

Fitzpatrick completed 96-of-163 passes (58.9 percent) last season for 1,103 yards with seven touchdowns and three picks. He led the team to two of its four victories last season, including back-to-back wins against the Jets and Dolphins in Weeks #10 and #11, and almost helped erase a 24-0 deficit in a 38-33 loss at Arizona after Winston suffered that shoulder injury.

In his entire career, Fitzpatrick has completed 2,411 passes out of 4,039 attempts for 26,991 yards and 173 TD's, along with 136 interceptions, for a career QBR of 79.9. As a starting QB, his overall record with 7 different NFL teams is (48-70-1), one of the League's worst among currently active NFL QB's.

During the Bucs Pre-Season, Fitzpatrick had both some good and not-so-good moments; but also they were times when he had serious issues throwing the ball accurately.

Fitzpatrick started the Buccaneers' first 3 Pre-Season games last month and completed 17-out-of-28 attempts for 183 passing yards, with no TD's but perhaps most importantly from Tampa's point of view: no interceptions.

It's also important to note that each year and each game has its own set of unique circumstances, and the Saints defense will still need to be playing at their highest level, no matter which "version" of Fitzpatrick shows up next Sunday in NOLA.

In last year's game at the Superdome, Fitzpatrick entered the game late in the 3rd Quarter and "mopped up" for Winston for the remainder of the contest, completing 8 out of 15 passes for 68 yards and a TD.

Amazingly in his previous 13 seasons, it was the first time that he had ever faced the Saints in a regular season game.

But he was sacked twice in that same game by the young and notably improved Saints D-Line; and it's his lack of mobility (and the fact that he's nowhere near the dual-threat athlete on offense that Winston is) that CLEARLY makes him "the weakest link" to target in 8 more days from now.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

The Saints have opened as a heavy 9 and a ½ point favorite and are an even bigger favorite to begin the 2018 season with a "bang"; which is good news for a New Orleans franchise seeking to advance much deeper into the NFL Playoffs this year.

Additionally (and perhaps ironically): the Winston suspension also means that former UDFA Saints QB Ryan Griffin was moved up a notch on the Bucs depth chart, and he’ll back up Fitzpatrick in that game next Sunday.

The 28-year-old Griffin has never thrown an NFL pass — which is just one more thing that the Saints defense will likely be keeping in mind for the next week — should Fitzpatrick falter or get hurt.

Regardless, the Saints defense CANNOT take Fitzpatrick or the Buccaneers offense lightly.

This past off-season, Licht and Koetter upgraded Tampa Bay's offensive attack, BIG TIME.

Photo courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

Their offense had weapons running all over the field this Pre-Season, and it's evident that they are a much better team offensively than the one that the Saints split the season series at (1-1) with, last year.

Tampa is LOADED at WR; with veterans Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and 2nd year former Penn State star Chris Godwin — who some observers say is turning into an absolute steal for a 3rd-round pick, in a very similar manner to wha the Saints themselves got in this year's 2018 NFL Draft with Tre'Quan Smith.

O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate give the Bucs the best 1-2 "punch" at tight end in the ENTIRE NFL, and RB's Peyton Barber and rookie Ronald Jones now give the Bucs a decent running game once again.

Bottom line: the Saints defense had best be prepared for this contest, despite Fitzgerald's notable struggles in the past.

Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick remains as Tampa Bay's "weakest link" — and if the Saints defense can make him uncomfortable in 8 more days from now at the Superdome, they can start the 2018 season off with a 'bang'........


Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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