Few NFL quarterbacks divide opinion quite like Jameis Winston does. Some see him as a one-of-a-kind athletic freak of nature who piles up stats and makes bold throws that few others are willing to even attempt. Others regard him as a turnover machine who makes bad decisions and never seems to improve.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are clearly part of the former camp. On Sunday, NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reported that Winston, currently in the final year of his contract, will be brought back next year, and coach Bruce Arians has essentially confirmed that as well. The Bucs clearly feel that Winston has improved under Arians, and can continue doing so given more time to work with the coach.
Mere hours after the report broke, Winston threw four interceptions in a 23-20 loss to the Houston Texans. Two of his first three passes were picked off. The first was returned for a touchdown, and the only reason the second wasn’t was because there was a Houston penalty on the return. The first and fourth picks were basically the same — a defensive back jumping a route, hopping in front of the receiver, and grabbing the pass. This doesn’t even include other passes that could have been intercepted, including a dropped pick on the goal line that almost looked intended for Texans defensive back Gareon Conley.
Winston now has 28 interceptions in 15 games this season. That’s ten more than Phillip Rivers, who is second in the league. It’s more than any NFL quarterback since 2005. If Winston throws two picks in Week 17 — and he’s done that in eight of his 15 games so far — he’ll hit 30 interceptions in one season, a feat that has not been accomplished since Vinny Testaverde threw 35 picks in 1988.
Does this sound like a winning quarterback? It shouldn’t. Winston’s defenders will point to many things, but few of them hold water. It’s no secret that he’s playing with a thumb injury, but that was also the case when he crushed the Detroit Lions a week ago, and it didn’t seem like an issue then. Tampa Bay’s pass defense has been poor for much of the season, costing the team games. While that’s partially true, it doesn’t explain everything, and the Bucs’ defense was much better Saturday and the team still lost. They’ll argue that he was without Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, his two best receivers, but Winston was turning the ball over at an alarming rate even with them in the lineup.
The biggest case Winston’s defenders make in his favor are the big numbers he puts up. Winston has now thrown for 31 touchdowns and 4,908 yards this season. Among quarterbacks in NFL history, only Peyton Manning has more yards than Winston in his first five seasons. Both of these things may be true, but how much does that matter when he’s getting picked off twice per game? Winston’s interceptions Saturday led directly to ten Houston points in a game the Buccaneers lost by three, and the Texans don’t boast an elite defense, either.
Arians’ system has undoubtedly helped Winston, just as it helped Carson Palmer when Arians took over in Arizona. Winston backers could point to Palmer as an Arians success story that Winston may replicate. In Palmer’s first season with Arizona, he threw for 4,274 yards, but 22 interceptions. He threw just 11 and 14 picks in 31 total games in 2015 and 2016 while surpassing 4,000 yards in both campaigns. That’s a guy who was prone to being picked off for much of his career.
But Winston isn’t Palmer. Palmer had started to show significant improvement in Arians’ offense by the end of year one. In 2013, the first year of the Palmer-Arians partnership, 15 of the quarterback’s 22 interceptions came in his first nine games of the year, and he threw only seven in his last seven, with four of them coming in one game. Winston has not shown that improvement; if anything, he’s getting worse as time goes on. After throwing 12 picks in his first eight games under Arians, he’s gone on to throw 16 in his next seven. His numbers are trending in the wrong direction.
But the Buccaneers have been winning. Saturday’s loss broke a four-game winning streak, and Winston is fresh off becoming the first quarterback in league history to throw for 450 yards in back-to-back games. The problem is that those four wins came against the Falcons, Jaguars, Titans, and Lions, four teams out of contention whose defenses have been repeatedly blown up by more than one quarterback. Even in those wins, Winston was intercepted six times in four games.
Winston will put up flashy stats. There will be lots of yards and a good amount of touchdown passes. But the question the Buccaneers should be asking themselves is whether Winston still profiles as the franchise quarterback that they thought they were getting when they selected him first overall in 2015. Five years in, he has one winning season and a 28-41 record as a starter. He averages more than a turnover a game, and that rate has grown worse in 2019. He’s about to turn 26, and after five NFL seasons, it’s fair to wonder how much more room for growth there actually is here.
It’s Tampa Bay’s prerogative if they want to stick with him. NFL teams tend to be risk averse, and for better or worse, the Buccaneers know what they’re getting with Winston as opposed to taking a risk and finding someone new. The problem is it’s becoming more and more apparent with each passing year that he’s just too inconsistent and mistake-prone to reliably lead a contending team. He again demonstrated why on Saturday in a game where his defense played well enough to win. If the Buccaneers aspire to be contenders, they’re better off moving on now while they have the chance.