Savior or bust?
The truth, as it is with all rookie quarterbacks, is Jameis Winston is somewhere in between through his first five NFL starts. But depending on which game he just played and who you’re talking to, it might seem as if this year’s No. 1 overall draft pick was either a wasted selection doomed to failure, or a knight in shining pewter come to rescue Bucs fans from their playoff drought.
Winston’s regular-season debut couldn’t have started any worse. His first pass attempt was intercepted and taken to the house, prompting his doubters to throw up their arms and commence with told-you-sos. His poor play looked even worse when juxtaposed against the performance of his counterpart, Tennessee Titans second overall pick Marcus Mariota.
Mariota was near-flawless, carving up the Tampa Bay defense to the tune of four first-half touchdown passes, while Winston completed less than 50 percent of his tosses and threw two picks to match his touchdown total.
But Winston bounced back the following week, eliminating his costly mental errors and helping the Bucs get a surprise win on the road against the New Orleans Saints. In a losing effort the following week, Winston took good care of the ball yet again, but failed to complete 50 percent of his passes again.
Week 4 was Winston’s worst outing, in a rainy home matchup against an undefeated Carolina Panthers team and one of the league’s best corners in Josh Norman. Winston made the mistake of losing track of Norman on his first pass of the game, and he returned it for a touchdown, foreshadowing what would be a long, frustrating afternoon for Tampa Bay’s young quarterback.
Winston would throw four picks altogether in that game, including another one to Norman, as the Bucs were routed by the Panthers. The Winston naysayers were out in full force, suggesting the team had obviously drafted the wrong quarterback with the top overall pick.
But just as he had a couple weeks prior, Winston responded with a solid, mistake-free performance, leading Tampa Bay to their first home win since the 2013 season. Winston didn’t turn the ball over, did a much better job of taking what the defense gave him and made key throws when he needed them to help the Bucs to a much-needed victory.
Winston’s outings have been up and down so far this year, but he’s far from alone when it comes to committing turnovers. Four quarterbacks have thrown seven or more interceptions so far this season: Winston, Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning.
All are former No. 1 overall picks, but Winston is the only rookie of the bunch.
Speaking of Manning, guess how his first five NFL starts went? The future first-ballot Hall of Famer tossed just four touchdowns to 12 interceptions, while completing only 55 percent of his passes.
Through his first five starts, Winston has thrown seven touchdowns and just as many interceptions, rushing for a touchdown but also losing a fumble. Luck matched those exact numbers through his first five career starts back in 2012.
Manning finished his rookie season in 1998 with 26 touchdowns and 28 interceptions, while Luck tossed 23 scores and was picked off 18 times. Both struggled in the early going, but proved as the season went along they were already developing into something special.
That is where the focus should lie for Winston, the Bucs and Tampa Bay fans everywhere. They have a rookie quarterback who is being counted on from Day 1 to bring the league’s worst team in 2014 back to NFL relevance. Perhaps his most important quality, Winston doesn’t shrink from the pressure. If anything, he embraces the challenge and expectations that come with the territory.
“I will never lose my confidence,” Winston told Jenna Laine of Sports Talk Florida following his dismal performance in Week 4 against Carolina. “Confidence will never be an issue. I’ve just got to work harder.”
Winston also picked a perfect time to play his cleanest game, as he and the Bucs head into their bye week on a strong note. Aided by a dominant ground game, Winston and the Tampa Bay offense moved the ball seemingly at will against the Jaguars last week, and his confidence should only grow as he prepares to face Washington in Week 6.
It’s been a roller-coaster for Winston so far this season. But if Bucs fans are smart, they’ll ride out the low points as their new field general gets his feet under him and prepares to take the Pewter Pirates to new heights.
Luke Easterling is a Featured Columnist covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NFL draft for Bleacher Report. He is also a senior NFL draft analyst for Draft Breakdown. Follow him on Twitter @Luke Easterling.
*All stats courtesy of NFL.com