An injured Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston stands on the sidelines during the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Photo: Chris O’Meara/AP
Photo: Chris O’Meara/AP

Smoke looms over Winston again, putting Bucs in precarious situation

Jameis Winston missed his third consecutive game on Sunday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers continued their downward spiral into NFL irrelevance once again. 

Winston, dealing with a shoulder injury, was inactive as the Bucs lost at the Atlanta Falcons, 34-20, locking in a basement slot in the NFC South. 

Consider the inactive tag a metaphor for a player who has stumbled into a career crossroads: Is he in or is he out? 

Winston has proven two things since he came to Tampa Bay from Florida State University three years ago: 1. He still has potential to emerge as a franchise quarterback despite some continued glitches of forcing plays; 2. He still has moments of immaturity that dove-tail into nefarious character issues. 

Is he a misogynist who gropes women and screams homophobic slurs? 

Or simply a misunderstood young man of 23, with only a touch of immaturity? 

Winston has no one but himself to blame for those questions getting asked again. 

Winston is under investigation by the NFL following an allegation that he groped a female Uber driver in 2016 and yelled homophobic slurs at pedestrians. Winston has denied the allegation, which brings everyone to the predictable conundrum: 

Do we believe Winston's denials, or say "no" to a free pass? 

The problem with the True Believers' approach is that Winston has just about run out of empathy from anyone who looks at this objectively. 

Winston has too many character blemishes for anyone to take him at his word anymore. This is exactly the conversation going on three years ago before he became the first pick in the NFL draft. 

A rape allegation at FSU did not result in charges getting filed, but his vulgar jab at women, shouted in the middle of campus, was irrefutable. The character smoke signals made a lot of people scream at the Bucs not to draft Winston. 

Winston presumably weathered all of the billowing smoke over his head. He engaged his teammates with his positive presence in the locker room. He engaged with countless fans who came to practice and scrimmages. He engaged the community with his charitable work. 

In short, he won over skeptical skeptics, including myself: 

"Winston is a high-risk, high-reward guy, based on character issues," I wrote before the draft. "He is either just a misunderstood soul prone to a few college hijinks, or harbors a dark side relevant to rape allegations that remain a moral deal-breaker for a lot of people." 

The pendulum now swings over to the dark side. Sorting out the last allegation may take a while. ESPN reported Sunday that the NFL has begun its investigation involving the Uber incident by speaking with the Bucs' head of security, Andres Trescastro. The investigation is not expected to be completed by the end of the season. 

The legalities will eventually be sorted out. But this is an awful look not only for Winston but for folks on the management flow chart. 

General manager Jason Licht helped make the call to draft Winston. His reputation — and job — may be one the line. Dirk Koetter was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach two years ago in part because of his chemistry and simpatico mojo with Winston. 

Both men are now staring at a 4-7 dumpster fire. 

Winston is nearing a return, an offensive uptick for a team that hasn't scored a first-quarter touchdown in the last eight games. 

But the conversation about Winston is much more than X's and O's. It's a question of whether Winston is minding his P's and Q's as a member of society. 

And that is never a conversation anyone wants to have, especially for a team that believed they were getting a franchise quarterback back in 2015. 

Presumably, the Bucs still believe. They have to because the alternative will be painful for a lot of people, and not just those named "Winston."

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