TAMPA, Fla. -- Three weeks ago, on the heels of a four-game win streak and as he closed in on the NFL’s passing yardage title, indications were fifth-year quarterback and former No. 1 pick Jameis Winston would return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 2020.
But after Winston threw six interceptions over the final two games and became the first NFL player to throw 30 interceptions and 30 touchdowns in a single season, there is growing concern over whether he can be the franchise’s long-term answer because of turnovers, even if the other numbers suggest yes, he is “ballin'."
Coach Bruce Arians and the Bucs' front office will spend the next few weeks evaluating Winston’s tape. They will also study potential free-agent options and draft prospects, as well as hash out potential financial scenarios. A long-term commitment seems less likely at this point. A $30 million price tag may also give them pause because the turnovers -- which have plagued him throughout his NFL and college career -- are a glaring issue that may never be resolved.
Still, there are some encouraging aspects from Winston’s season -- his first in Arians’ offense. Here’s a closer look at those, areas he must improve on, an in-depth look at the interceptions, what the analytics tell us and what Arians has to say.
Most encouraging signs
Winston became the eighth quarterback in NFL history to surpass 5,000 passing yards, finishing with 5,109 -- the most in the NFL. He also helped wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin each eclipse 1,100 receiving yards, which couldn't happen if Winston didn't have talent.
His deep-ball accuracy, which was a source of criticism in previous years, was substantially better under Arians. Winston completed a league-high 41 passes of 20 or more air yards in 2019 -- double his previous career-high of 20 in 2015. He also improved in tight-window throws, completing 37% (11th in the league) in 2019 (league average is 35%), up from 32% in 2018 (25th in the league), according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Winston was also terrific in the red zone, which was an area the Bucs had struggled in previously as a team. Winston threw a career-high 19 touchdowns and just one interception in this area (19.00 ratio) -- second only to Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. His 99.0 red zone passer rating was eighth in the league.
Areas of concern
Winston struggled more with short passes in 2019 than he has in the past, which you could see early in games. In 2018, he completed 75% of his passes on throws 10 yards or fewer downfield, with a 1.8 touchdown-to-interception ratio (nine touchdowns, five interceptions).
In 2019, his completion percentage on such throws dropped to 66%, with a 1.2 touchdown-to-interception ratio (16 touchdowns, 13 interceptions). He was 28th in the league on these throws in 2019 (league average is 70%). It should also be noted nearly half (13) of Winston’s 30 interceptions this year came on distances traveling less than 10 air yards down the field, with 20 coming on plays of 15 or fewer air yards.
Winston struggled more under duress and when hit in 2019, where he completed 45.2% of his passes (14th in the league) and threw eight touchdowns and five interceptions. In 2018, he was one of the best quarterbacks in this department from an accuracy standpoint, completing 56.8% of his passes, throwing five touchdowns and three interceptions.
Winston also spent more time in the pocket (2.46 seconds per throw) in 2019 than he did in any of his previous years (his best mark was in 2016, at 2.38). This could be a function of working in a new offense and subsequently taking longer in his progressions. There were a few instances where Arians said Winston needed to be more decisive with the ball and holding onto it resulted in sacks.
A closer look at the interceptions
Cover 3 was a challenge for Winston. Ten of his 30 interceptions came against this coverage, the most in the NFL, with six coming from linebackers -- including Deion Jones’ pick-six that sealed the Bucs’ season-ending overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Winston’s 62.7% completion rate against Cover 3 was also 27th in the league.
Ten of Winston’s other interceptions came against man coverage (also the most in the NFL), although he posted a 61.9% completion rate against this coverage -- 12th in the league. Six of his other picks came against Cover 2 (65% completions, 28th in the NFL), two against 2-man (49.3% completions, 26th in the NFL), one against Tampa 2 and one against goal-line man.
What QBR tells us
QBR, a metric developed by ESPN Stats & Information, incorporates several elements of quarterback play that aren't often accounted for in other quarterback metrics, including penalties and fumbles. It adjusts for context, giving far more credit for a 7-yard gain on third-and-6 than it does for the same yardage on third-and-13, for example, because it's built on an expected points framework. No measure is perfect, but QBR is the most effective one-number metric for quarterbacks. So, how has Winston measured up over the course of his five-season career?
In 2019, Winston had a Total QBR of 53.9, ranking 18th in the NFL between Giants rookie Daniel Jones and the Browns' Baker Mayfield. His best QBR season came in 2018, when he started 11 games and ranked eighth (66.2). In every other season, he's ranked somewhere in the middle of NFL quarterbacks -- between 12th and 19th.
What Bruce Arians says
When asked if the Bucs could win with another quarterback, Arians turned heads Monday when he said, “Oh yeah. We can win with this one [and] we can definitely win with another one too because we’re going to have this defense.”
Arians believes it’s “50-50” in terms of how fixable Winston’s interceptions are versus how much this is just who he is. That would be consistent with his interception numbers from 2015 and 2018 (16 picks for both seasons), although Winston didn’t play a full season in 2018.
It should be noted going back to his two years at Florida State, Winston has never thrown fewer than 10 interceptions in a season or had fewer than 10 turnovers (fumbles included). Arians said he wouldn’t be able to overlook Winston leading the league in turnovers.
Of the 2019 playoff teams, no quarterback threw more than 13 interceptions (Jimmy Garoppolo).
“You’re not going anywhere. You’re going home. You’re going home when you lead the league in giveaways,” Arians said. “You’re never going to play in the playoffs unless you’re playing for the Steelers in the '70s.”