If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers miss the playoffs in the 2016 season, it will have been a full decade since they made the postseason. The last time it happened—2007—Jon Gruden was still the head coach, Jeff Garcia—now 46—was the starting quarterback, Joey Galloway—currently 45—was the top receiver, and the delightfully named Stylez G. White was the primary pass-rusher.
The Bucs have had four coaches since Gruden was let go following the 2008 season, most recently replacing Lovie Smith with former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in part because Koetter developed a positive working relationship with quarterback Jameis Winston in 2015. Given Koetter’s lack of head coaching experience at the NFL level (the last time Koetter was a head coach anywhere was at Arizona State in 2006), this was a clear signal from management: As goes Jameis Winston, so goes the rest of the team.
Not an uncommon practice, especially for a quarterback selected first overall in the NFL draft. Winston validated the Bucs’ faith in his abilities in his rookie year, completing 269 passes in 436 attempts for 4,042 yards, 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He finished 16th among all quarterbacks in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics, ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Matt Ryan. Most importantly, it appeared that the Buccaneers had the game’s most important position covered for the first time in a long time.
Winston’s 2016 season is right on point with his rookie year—he’s on pace for 359 completions in 581 attempts for 4,240 yards, 31 touchdowns and 16 picks. The question now becomes a bit larger and more pressurized: Can Winston lead his team back to the postseason?
Since we’re bringing up current ages in this piece, it’s important to remember that Winston won’t turn 23 until January, and there are times when the youth and relative inexperience shows. But the tape shows a player who came into the league with a number of outstanding attributes, and with Koetter’s help, he’s built on them.
Winston’s most obvious attribute is his fearlessness in the pocket. He’s touted as a running quarterback, which may be more a cosmetic analysis than anything based on the film. He is mobile, but what I’ve appreciated since his Florida State days is how he’ll stay in the pocket until routes have developed and make good throws under considerable pressure—indeed, even when he’s about to get his block knocked off. According to Pro Football Focus’ charting metrics, Winston has been under pressure on 38.9 percent of his passes, and in those situations, he’s completed 48 percent of his throws for 876 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. That touchdown total ties him with Rodgers, and only Andrew Luck and Tyrod Taylor have more touchdowns under duress.
Winston has all the tools to be one of the league’s better quarterbacks. What does the tape say about where he’s taken that talent, and what does it mean for the Buccaneers?
In my tape review of Winston, I wanted to start with three different interceptions, because they tell different stories. I basically organized his 2016 interceptions into three categories:
- Winston didn’t see converging defenders and made a throw without a full read (something that was a problem for him in college);
- Winston threw to a spot the receiver didn’t or couldn’t reach;
- Winston threw a catchable pass that was dropped by his receiver, either before or after contact.
The reasons for the picks were fairly equally distributed, which is to say that Winston’s interceptions are more his own problem than a blamescape on his receivers.
The first pick came in Tampa Bay’s 28-21 win over the Chargers on Sunday. This one is pretty clear—Winston has Mike Evans as the outside receiver in a motion-to-Twins concept, and while Russell Shepard (89) runs a deep over route, Mike Evans (13) runs a curl route for the read. Cornerback Casey Hayward (26) followed Evans across the formation, and cornerback Craig Mager (29) gave Shepard a quick run of zone coverage before handing him off and following Hayward back to Evans. Winston turned his back to the defense to run a play fake, and when he turned around, it was clear that both Hayward and Mager were converging on Evans. Still, he tried the throw, and Hayward (who’s been a great surprise for the Chargers this season) easily jumped the route.
Next, Winston’s two interceptions against the Broncos in Week 4. This was billed as a bit of a homecoming for cornerback Aqib Talib, who played for the Bucs from 2008 through part of 2012 and has become one of the better cover cornerbacks in the NFL. The first pick came with 13:38 left in the first quarter. It was an advantageous receiver split for Winston—he had a bunch right formation and motioned running back Charles Sims to the far right—but Winston threw to the middle of the field as receivers Vincent Jackson (83) and Adam Humphries (11) ran dual intermediate in-breaking routes. Winston threw the ball to arrive after Jackson had cleared the area, and Humphries couldn’t get to the ball before Talib had it. Safety Darian Stewart (26) had Jackson trapped outside, so even if Winston had wanted to adjust, the result would likely have been similarly unsuccessful.
Talib’s second pick of the day was also about timing. Here, he had Evans wide open to his right as the receiver made a great move to blow out Talib’s tight coverage at the line. But he felt pressure and stepped up in the pocket instead of throwing when Evans was yards past Talib, which gave the defender the opportunity to close in and jump the route.
Now, for the good stuff. You may have seen this play already, as it made its way on all the highlight shows and was all over social media. Early in the third quarter of Tampa Bay’s Week 10 win over the Bears, Winston did an unbelievable job of evading what seemed like Chicago’s entire defense, only to plant and make a gorgeous throw to Evans for a 39-yard gain. Plays like these show Winston’s athletic gifts, yes, but also that he’s aiming to throw when he’s running—he has his eye on the passing game when he needs to.
And though Winston does still run into timing issues now and then, he’s much better with tight-window throws than he was in college, or even in his rookie season. His one touchdown pass against the Chargers was a beauty. Here, he had tight end Cameron Brate (84) as the inside man in a trips left formation, and as Brate ran a quick out-and-up to the end zone, two defenders—linebacker Denzel Perryman (52) and Mager—closed in on the target. But Winston made the right throw, hitting Brate with excellent pre-coverage timing despite pressure in his area.
If you want to see Winston’s pocket presence in action, there are few better examples than this 24-yard touchdown pass to Evans in Week 9 against the Falcons. Winston has Evans running to the left corner of the end zone with cornerback Robert Alford (23) covering, and he knows he can trust Evans to make the most of the contested catch on a 50-50 ball. More impressive is how expertly Winston sidesteps the pressure in his face from edge-rusher Vic Beasley (44), who thoroughly beat left tackle Donovan Smith to the pocket. Winston simply took two hitch steps to his left and delivered the throw right on time. And while Alford might have had a case regarding offensive pass interference (Evans basically hugged him before the ball came down), there’s no disputing the pass itself.
After a four-game winning streak, the Bucs have a 7-5 record, and they’re up top with the Falcons in the NFC South. The two teams have already split their 2016 series, so maybe it’s the Bucs who are getting hot at the right time.
Is Jameis Winston ready for a playoff push? Based on what I’ve seen, he has gunslinger tendencies that both help and hurt the team. He will make the occasional nonsensical throw, but at the same time, that rogue gene that takes him out of structure at times can create remarkable plays. What Winston needs more than anything is efficiency and consistency. He has everything else a young quarterback could want. Now it’s up to him to put it all together.
A playoff appearance for the first time in too long could be the result.