TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — With six games remaining in mostly disappointing seasons for Tampa Bay and San Francisco, both struggling squads are seeking answers that will help them beyond 2018.
The odds may be against either club salvaging the year with a playoff berth, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything meaningful the Buccaneers (3-7) and 49ers (2-8) can accomplish beginning Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Tampa Bay is turning back to Jameis Winston a month after benching the 2015 No. 1 overall draft pick with hopes the fourth-year will settle a debate about whether he’s the right quarterback to lead the franchise moving forward.
Meanwhile, San Francisco returns from a bye week during which coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff did some self-scouting. The second-year coach had a straight-forward message for players when the team reassembled for practice.
“There’s a lot on the line,” Shanahan said. “That’s stuff that is obvious. Everyone knows that, but to state it to guys and just make people aware because you never assume that everyone knows what you’re talking about. There’s always guys you’ve got to let them know what the deal is in this league.
“You come back and people might think you don’t have much to play for. You have everything to play for,” the coach added. “You have your career, you have your livelihood, you have the guys next to you and you have showing people that you want to be (with the 49ers). When you start to think of that, you think of all the challenges ahead. I’m excited to do it.”
Winston is excited to have another opportunity as Tampa Bay’s starter. He sat out the first three games of the season while serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, then turned the ball over 11 times in 14 quarters after getting back on the field.
Ryan Fitzpatrick posted dazzling passing numbers during a 2-0 start, however the 14-year veteran has lost his past five starts and the Bucs have dropped seven of eight overall to jeopardize their chances of ending a 10-year playoff drought.
“I’m just grateful that I’m back on the field,” said Winston, who replaced Fitzpatrick during the second half of last week’s 38-35 loss to the New York Giants and led four straight touchdown drives to get Tampa Bay back in the game.
Coach Dirk Koetter isn’t saying if he considers the job Winston’s for the remainder of the season.
“You’ve got to win. That’s all that matters in this league,” Winston said. “You can look at stats … but you’ve got to win to be up to the standard of excellence we’re held to at this position.”
The 49ers lost quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a season-ending knee injury in the third week of the season. Nick Mullens, who’ll make his third straight start Sunday, replaced an injured C.J. Beathard three weeks ago and has gone 1-1 while throwing for 512 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions while beating the Raiders and losing to the Giants.
One person who’s not surprised Mullens has responded to the opportunity is the quarterback’s former college coach Todd Monken, who’s now Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator.
Monken recruited Mullens to Southern Mississippi in 2013 and left to join the Bucs in 2016.
“He’s everything you want in a player and as a quarterback,” Monken said. “He’s elite in a lot of areas that are hard to find when it comes to his toughness, mental toughness, his preparation, how much he enjoys playing football and his personality, where guys are going to gravitate toward him.
“He’s not a flashy guy, he’s not going to say the wrong thing. He’s just going to work his rear end off. I couldn’t be happier for him. … We wouldn’t have done the things we did at Southern Miss without him. He’s made me a better coach.”
Some other things to know about the 49ers and Buccaneers:
Mullens followed up a record-setting debut with a much more mediocre performance in a loss to the Giants before the bye. Now San Francisco wants to see which version of Mullens shows up against the Bucs.
In his debut against Oakland, Mullens joined Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Fran Tarkenton as the only players with at least 250 yards passing, three touchdown passes and no interceptions in their first career game. He also had the most efficient debut since the merger for a player with at least 20 attempts, posting a 151.9 rating in the 34-3 win. He followed that up with two interceptions in the loss to the Giants, but remains the starter ahead of Beathard.
Tampa Bay has the NFL’s top-ranked passing attack (374.6 yards per game) and leads the league in total offense (458.5). Turnovers and a porous defense have hindered the team’s success. The Bucs have a NFL-worst turnover differential of minus-23. The defense is yielding a league-high 32.9 points per game.
SOMETHING HAS TO GIVE
The Bucs have been giving the ball away at a staggering rate with their 29 turnovers tied for the most through 10 games since 2012. They face a 49ers team that has generated only five takeaways, the fewest in the league through 10 games since at least 2000. One of these teams should be able to fix that problem at least for one week on Sunday.
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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