TAMPA, Fla. -- Where there's smoke, there's usually fire. And when there's a struggling offense that can't score more than 20 points a game and the team has fallen to 4-9, it's usually accompanied by an upset quarterback.
That's what was reported Sunday by the NFL Network -- that Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston is frustrated with coach Dirk Koetter's lack of support when he recovered from a shoulder injury and Koetter's "predictable offense."
Winston emphatically denied it, saying, "I've been with Coach Koetter since I got in this league, and he has not wronged me since I stepped foot in those doors. I believe in what we have as an organization."
Koetter was more subdued, calling their relationship "extremely consistent" over their three years together.
It's the kind of family drama that gets out when a team is 4-9 and someone within the inner circle gripes to someone else and it ends up on TV. There's more of that going on right now than people think with a team that went 9-7 last season and had big expectations for 2017.
It was fully expected that both would deny that friction exists, particularly Winston. He says he and his teammates are concerned with winning, and they generally prioritize that over airing grievances. That's the same message from the Bucs' locker room, and that's why safety T.J. Ward's complaints about playing time surprised so many after the Buffalo Bills game.
Regardless, there is some truth to the argument made on Winston's behalf.
Though Koetter fully supported Winston when addressing the media -- saying that he wouldn't lose his job because of injury -- and communicated just how much pain Winston was playing through, his game plans for Winston didn't evolve in a way that could protect him.
In the two full games that Winston played before finally being shelved -- against the Bills and against the Carolina Panthers -- he had 82 passing attempts, second-most of any quarterback in the league. He averaged the sixth-most air yards per attempt (10.35) of any quarterback in the league in those games, too.
Granted, he passed for 384 yards and completed nearly 73 percent of those passes against the Bills, delivering his best performance of the season in the second half, but he took another bone-crushing hit on a sack by Ryan Davis and further aggravated the injury, forcing him to miss another week of practice.
The next week against the Panthers, they continued the same aggressive style of offense, with Winston attempting 11 throws of 15-plus air yards, more than any other team who faced the Panthers through Week 8. It was clear early on that Winston's velocity just wasn't there, and he couldn't complete a pass longer than 20 yards, nor could he complete one on third down. No in-game adjustments were made to accommodate this.
It should be noted that the teams who beat the Panthers had six or fewer pass attempts of 15-plus air yards. And Winston was pressured on 27.3 percent of his dropbacks in that game -- fourth-most of the season for him -- yet it appeared there was zero adjustment to the playcalling that would allow him to get rid of the ball quicker.
A similar thing happened last season against the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth quarter when the Bucs were down to using third-string offensive tackle Leonard Wester after Demar Dotson missed the game with a concussion and Gosder Cherilus left the game with a groin injury. Dallas' David Irving turned into a one-man wrecking crew, yet Winston was still dropping back. That was a critical in-game adjustment that the coaching staff could have made.
After Carolina, Winston really struggled with the deep ball against New Orleans, yet it was still in the game plan and the offense was still about generating explosive plays, with Winston averaging 10.92 air yards per attempt.
In Week 11 against the Miami Dolphins, with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, suddenly the Bucs had a screen game and could nickel-and-dime their way down the field, which is exactly how you defeat teams pressuring you heavily, while protecting the quarterback. It's how New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has won many games. It also helped Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott become a rookie sensation last season (although having a ground game led by Ezekiel Elliott helped, too).
Koetter did, however, have one of his better game plans when Winston made his return against the Green Bay Packers last week, and that included adjusting to the Packers taking away Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson.
Claims of having a "predictable offense" are not new. A defensive assistant on a team the Bucs faced this season said the Bucs' offense "read like an open book" and was "easily the most predictable we've seen all year."
Winston said it is more on the players to execute.
"It doesn't matter what a coach calls, it's our job to execute. I've been playing football since I was four years old," Winston said. "Being predictable is what makes you a good football team, when they know what you are going to do and you still go out there and you beat them. So being predictable, I don't get that about an offense being predictable -- execute to the [level] you are supposed to execute, it doesn't matter."
His point is valid, however: The Bucs threw two touchdown passes in the second half Sunday against the Detroit Lions with tight end O.J. Howard and Wester both wide open. The Lions have struggled all season stopping play-action in the red zone and the Bucs picked up on it.
Winston even acknowledged that he believed the Lions knew that the Bucs were going to hit them with play-action in the red zone, but with Wester? No. He was the first Bucs offensive tackle to be targeted in the end zone in the past three seasons.
Compare that with Evans, who's been targeted 49 times in the red zone over three seasons. No wonder teams frequently double Evans in the red zone. It's either going to Evans or Cameron Brate. In today's NFL, where there isn't much discrepancy when it comes to talent level, sometimes it's that very element of surprise that can win close games.
Regardless of who's right and who's wrong, things aren't beyond repair with Winston and Koetter, although the more they lose, the tougher it is to ignore -- especially with Koetter's job at stake.
"I don't control that. That's not my place," Winston said, when asked about Koetter's job status. "When you lose, everything gets blamed on ... the head coach and the quarterback and I'm OK with that. ... I'm pretty sure Coach Koetter is OK with that. We don't care about that stuff. All we care about is each other, our family and trying to win."