There generally are two commonalities with NFL coaches playing it coy about which quarterback will start Sunday: 1) They’re not nearly as clever as they think they are; and 2) It rarely if ever makes a difference.
On Wednesday, Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter predictably tried to keep everybody in suspense when asked whether Ryan Fitzpatrick or Jameis Winston will start Sunday against the Bears at Soldier Field. Though Winston is eligible to play after a three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy, Fitzpatrick is expected to start after setting an NFL record by throwing for 400 or more yards in the first three games in place of Winston.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you that?” Koetter said playfully on a conference call with Bears media reporters. “I don’t think you asked me.”
Well, is he?
“We’re gonna go with Ryan Griffin,” Koetter said, referring to the Buccaneers’ third-string quarterback. “I’m giving you guys a scoop. Ryan Griffin.”
Hardy har har. It’s an age-old game coaches love to play, but more often than not the advantage is perceived more than real. It might make a difference if one quarterback is a runner and the other is a pocket passer. But Fitzpatrick and Winston are pocket passers running the same offense. It’s one of those curious bits of football gamesmanship that coaches can’t resist, even though it almost never makes a difference.
Has Koetter ever seen it make a difference?
“That’s not my problem,” he said.
Has Bears coach Matt Nagy ever seen it make a difference?
“Not necessarily,” Nagy said. “You understand completely why they would hold back, but to each their own.”
Or, as Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller put it, “It makes sense [to do it]. It doesn’t really matter, though. I don’t pay attention to it, so it doesn’t matter to me.”
And on paper if not on the field, the Bucs’ great unknown could be trumped by the Bears’ great known — red-hot outside linebacker Khalil Mack will gladly harass either one of them.
“Man, that’s the whole point in playing in the NFL — you have to be prepared,” Mack said. “You get paid to go out and . . . no matter who it is, you’ve got to be prepared. That’s going to be a challenge.”
Koetter at least has the Bears guessing.
“I think we could end up seeing [Fitzpatrick], but I don’t know,” Nagy said. “What they’ve done with him is very impressive. But we’ll see. I know that [defensive coordinator] Vic [Fangio] will have those guys ready for both.”
Fitzpatrick’s big-play ability will be a challenge for a Fangio defense that leads the league in sacks (14), is second in takeaways (eight) and is fifth in yards allowed. He leads the NFL in passing yards (1,230) and yards per attempt (11.1) and is second in touchdown passes (11) and passer rating (124.8).
The Bucs already have five pass plays of 50 yards or more — 50 and 51 yards to 6-5, 230-pound wide receiver Mike Evans (23 receptions, 367 yards, three touchdowns), 75 and 58 yards to deep threat DeSean Jackson (12-312, three touchdowns) and 58 yards to tight end O.J. Howard (11-222, one touchdown). The Bears are 11th in the NFL in passing yards allowed, with seven plays of 30 yards or more.
Now they face the most prolific passer in the league in Fitzpatrick. Unless it’s Winston. Or Griffin.
“You need to try to figure out — maybe guess which one you’re going to see more of,” Nagy said when asked about defensive preparations. “Vic’ll have that all set. They’re both really good quarterbacks. Ryan, the way he’s playing, he has them as the No. 1 offense statistically with yards per game. So we have to prepare for that, then be able to adjust if it is Jameis.”