TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter admitted that if he had to do it over again, he might have done some things differently in Thursday's 43-28 loss to Atlanta. But he was referring to a decision not to accept a 15-yard penalty, not his decision to keep quarterback Jameis Winston in a game that had already gotten out of hand.
With 6:53 remaining in the game, Winston found Adam Humphries for a 7-yard touchdown. He attempted to run in a two-point conversion and took a big hit from Jalen Collins. He was limping heavily on the sideline. Mike Glennon had to finish the game. Before the touchdown drive, there was 9:56 left on the clock and the Bucs were down 40-14.
The Bucs would have needed to score 27 points. The Bucs hadn't scored more than 34 points in a game all season. The defense hadn't forced the Falcons to punt all night long. There was no coming back from this.
Koetter's explanation for why he kept his franchise quarterback in the game?
"Because players play in the NFL," Koetter said. "Players play. This isn’t a participation trophy. The players play in the NFL. Jameis played every single snap last year. Hopefully we’re not in a lot of games where we’re way behind, but I think there was still eight minutes to go in the game when that happened."
Since the start of 2015, the Buccaneers have been down by at least 20 points in the fourth quarter seven times, which is tied with the 49ers for most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Only one time in the team's history have they overcome a deficit of more than 20 points -- back in 2008 in a 30-27 win against Kansas City.
The biggest deficit they've ever overcome with Winston was a 14-point deficit against San Francisco this season -- a team that is now 1-7 and has the 32nd-ranked defense in the NFL. The Falcons might not be much better statistically, ranking 26th in yards allowed per game, but they played well enough to hold Winston and Co. to just two touchdowns through three quarters.
Koetter was more concerned about his young quarterback's decision-making on the two-point conversion.
"If I had my way, Jameis would have thrown that ball away and not taken that hit, but Jameis isn’t going to do that," Koetter said. "That’s the competitive side of him that sometimes can be a detriment. You love it and you hate it at the same time. You only have 46 guys up. We do have a second quarterback up and when Mike [Glennon] came in, he did a good job."
Glennon did do a good job, tossing a 2-yard touchdown to Cameron Brate and a successful two-point conversion to Brandon Myers to make it 43-28 with :59 left, after the Bucs held the Falcons to a field goal -- a 50-yard kick from Matt Bryant.
"We’re not going to be taking Jameis out of games. Those guys are paid to play, they want to play and we’re going to play them," Koetter said, adding, "Jameis is fine."
Winston also said he was fine after the game. That doesn't change the fact that he was out in harm's way when he didn't need to be. Considering the team's rash of injuries -- being down to one starting defensive lineman at one point and possibly having to sign an eighth running back now that Antone Smith is expected to be out for the rest of the season, is that something he really wants to test?
Koetter also kept Winston in another blowout loss in Week 2 against Arizona, when the Bucs lost 40-7. His explanation there?
"I don’t think Jameis would have come out," Koetter said. "He struggled. A lot of guys were finishing the game for both teams. We could have taken him out, but he would have wanted to finish. Some of you may not understand this, but the captain always wants to go down with the ship, and that’s how it is and Jameis is that kind of guy."
He added, "You can criticize me all you want. He stayed in the game. Say what you want. He stayed in the game. You can get as mad at me as you want. He stayed in. Write what you’re going to write."
Koetter was asked if keeping him in the game was beneficial to his growth as a young quarterback so he could work through his mistakes. He responded, "There wasn’t much working through anything today."
Then couldn't the same thing be said for Thursday night?
Look at Robert Griffin III. He's not even with the Washington Redskins anymore following a torn ACL and a head coaching change. He's a far more mobile quarterback than Winston, but his ability to make plays outside the pocket and improvise puts him at a similar risk. Then-head coach Mike Shanahan said Griffin had "earned the right to decide whether he can play or not."
Every NFL quarterback is competitive. Quarterbacks are typically some of, if not the most competitive athletes on the field. And it's up to an NFL head coach to protect them, many times from themselves. No one wants to come out of a game. Shanahan failed to do that with RG3. Koetter failed to do that with Winston, and it could have been much, much worse.
Quarterbacks have an obligation to their teams, but it's not just to win games -- it's to be out there, able to practice and able to lead on a weekly basis.