Jameis Winston Is NFL's Biggest Risk-Reward QB and the Bucs Can't Let Him Leave

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystDecember 15, 2019

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston signals during the first half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Paul Sancya/Associated Press

There isn't a more polarizing quarterback in the NFL than Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston. His supporters will point to his cannon of an arm and gaudy passing stats like the 458 passing yards and four scores Winston dropped on the Lions in a blowout win in Week 15 that got the red-hot Buccaneers back to .500 for the season.

They have a point.

Winston's detractors point to one thing as proof that the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft is never going to be a true "franchise" quarterback—turnovers. Winston threw another interception Sunday in Motown, bringing his league-leading total to a career-high 24. In 70 career games, Winston has turned the ball over a jaw-dropping 105 times. That's an average of over 20 turnovers per season.

Those detractors have a point, too.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

With Winston two games away from the conclusion of his rookie contract, the Buccaneers face a difficult decision indeed. There's no easy answer to the paradox that is Winston's game. But over the last month or so, it's become pretty clear that Tampa Bay can't jettison Winston. Not now. Not yet.

Less than a month ago, that wasn't the case. In a Week 11 loss to the Saints at home, Winston passed for 313 yards but also threw four interceptions—including a pick-six that sealed the game. It was his third game with at least three interceptions for the season, and the floundering Buccaneers had dropped five of six to drop to 3-7 after a 2-2 start.

See ya, Jameis.

Over the past four weeks, though, it's been a different story. The turnovers have still been there—Winston threw three picks in Week 14 against the Colts and has six interceptions over the last four games. But Winston has also tossed 11 touchdown passes over that span, posted a passer rating over 100 in three of four and made NFL history by becoming the first player to top 450 passing yards in back-to-back games.

With 221 passing yards in the first quarter against the Lions, Winston also had one of the best periods we've ever seen from a signal-caller.

Scott Smith @ScottSBucs

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Jameis Winston's 221 passing yards were the third-most in a first quarter by any QB in the last 40 years. Peyton Manning had 247 on 9/26/04 and Jim Kelly had 229 on 12/2/1990.

Winston looked fantastic for the most part in Detroit. Playing with a fractured thumb, Winston time and again displayed the kind of accuracy, arm strength and touch that made him such a tantalizing prospect coming out of Florida State.

The Athletic NFL @TheAthleticNFL

Jameis Winston already has... Almost 200 yards 2 TDs And we’re still in the first quarter 🤯 📺: FOX https://t.co/5e1AEz3uIt

That's a perfect throw.

But that "for the most part" caveat had to be thrown in there because Winston's interception was classic Jameis—a ball that never, ever should have been thrown. As things stand right now, Winston is on pace to lead the league in both passing yards and interceptions.

That's a very Jameis Winston stat, and as Frank Schwab wrote for Yahoo Sports, it makes attempting to decide Winston's future (and value) a risky proposition indeed.

"Winston might be the most confounding quarterback in the NFL now, and maybe in recent memory. Put on the film of his best plays, and you see an aggressive quarterback able to make all the throws. He even has made a statement about his toughness the past couple weeks, coming back into last week’s game after fracturing his thumb and throwing for 456 yards, and playing through the injury Sunday. At his best, Winston is really good. But we all know you can’t eliminate the bad parts. The interception to [Jahlani] Tavai was brutal, as most of Winston’s 24 interceptions have been. It has been five years. If it hasn’t changed by now, it’s not going to change. This is who he is."

Winston is going to make at least one throw in every game that makes you ooh and ahh. He's also going to make at least one that makes you groan. Both are as sure as the sun coming up in the morning.

For much of the season—even while Winston was struggling—head coach Bruce Arians has expressed confidence in his young quarterback. But as ESPN's Jenna Laine reported, Arians himself was noncommittal about Winston's future with the team on Dec. 4.

Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

"I'm gonna pass on that one," Arians said. "I'm gonna wait until the end of December. There's been really, really, really good and there's been some really, really bad. I'm gonna pass until it's over and then we'll make a decision."

Of course, that was before Winston heated up and the Buccaneers got back to .500. With games left against the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons, there's little reason to think Winston won't keep putting up big numbers. Tampa's first .500 season since 2016 (and second of the past decade) is a real possibility.

There's been progress in Arians' first year as coach.

Given that progress, it's hard to imagine the Buccaneers cutting bait on Winston in the offseason. There are two types of teams in the NFL—those who have franchise quarterbacks and those who desperately want one. There aren't going to be any quarterbacks on the open market who would represent an upgrade on Winston—if they were, they would never sniff the open market to begin with. And Tampa isn't going to have a high enough pick to be in on the big names in the 2020 draft.

That doesn't mean that the Buccaneers should break the bank on a long-term extension for Winston. Turnovers are the kiss of death in the NFL, and Winston is a machine in that regard. Believing that's going to change is wishful thinking at best and delusional at worst.

Arians isn't the first coach who has tried to "fix" Winston's decision-making with the football. The odds that it will ever improve markedly after all this time are...ungood.

As Schwab said, Jameis Winston is who he is.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

A short-term extension would make more sense, but it's relatively unlikely that Winston's camp would be amenable to that. That leaves the franchise tag as the wisest course of action for the Buccaneers. It gives the team another year to attempt to continue its upward trajectory without completely mortgaging the future. In a best-case scenario, Winston will cut back on the giveaways in 2020 and Tampa can feel at least a little better about writing that fat check. In a worst-case scenario, the success will be fleeting, Winston will regress and 2020 will bring a reset at football's most important position.

As is usually the case with Winston, the truth will probably lie somewhere in the middle. There's no guarantee that things will work out with Winston in Tampa. Hasn't been one the first five years of his career. Won't be one in season No. 6.

As bets go, it's a risky one.

But the ceiling Winston showed over the past few weeks is worth the gamble. The Buccaneers aren't that far away from being a playoff contender. The team's draft capital is better spent fixing the secondary than starting over under center.

Jameis Winston may not ever be a superstar, but he can be pretty danged good.

For the Buccaneers, that needs to be good enough.