Making the Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers to Sign Jameis Winston
There's no shortage of speculation in the National Football League this time of year. In 2020, that's been amplified exponentially.
Something about being the only show in town gets people to theorizing—especially in a year where so many veteran quarterbacks switched teams.
One quarterback who's still searching for a dance partner is five-year veteran Jameis Winston. Despite leading the NFL in passing yards in 2019, there hasn't been a ton of interest in Winston after the Buccaneers replaced him with Tom Brady.
However, more than a few pundits have bandied about the possibility that Winston could be a good fit as Ben Roethlisberger's backup (and potential successor) with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Some really like the idea, including one of Pittsburgh's former coaches. Others, not so much.
It's a signing that would take some creative accounting—Pittsburgh is sitting on the seventh-smallest amount of cap space in the NFL, per Over the Cap. But teams create additional wiggle room all the time.
And a case can be made that this particular talking point isn't a bad idea at all.
Ben Roethlisberger's Age and Injury History
Over 16 seasons with the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger has carved out a career that will all but certainly land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Terry Bradshaw went so far as to call Roethlisberger the best signal-caller in franchise history in a recent interview with 93.7 The Fan (h/t Bryan DeArdo of CBS Sports):
"I would give it to Ben. His numbers far exceed mine. I may have won more Super Bowls, but he is a much better quarterback. I wasn't bad in my era, but he's big, strong, accurate, puts up monstrous numbers, and he's won two Super Bowls. I pass that baton to him, gladly. I absolutely have no problem with that. He deserves it."
Considering the source, that's heady praise indeed.
However, the reality is that Roethlisberger is a lot closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He turned 38 in March and is coming off a serious elbow injury that essentially wiped out his 2019 season.
Per Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Roethlisberger says the rehab of his elbow has progressed well.
"I have no doubts I'm going to be able to come back and play well—none," Roethlisberger said. "I have complete confidence in that. I'm throwing without pain for the first time in years."
That's all well and good. But even if he is 100 percent ready to go for Week 1, there's a good chance he'll miss time in 2020.
Here's another stat to throw in with Roethlisberger's 56,545 career passing yards, six Pro Bowls and pair of Super Bowl wins: In 16 years in the pros, he has played in all 16 games in a season just four times.
Pittsburgh's Backup QB Situation
Despite losing Roethlisberger for most of the season in 2019, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered Week 17 with a shot at making the postseason. Defeat a Baltimore Ravens team that was resting most of its starters, and all it would have taken was a loss by the Tennessee Titans to get Pittsburgh into the postseason tournament.
That didn't happen for the same reason Pittsburgh found itself in that less-than-ideal situation in the first place.
The backup quarterback situation for the team was (and is) ungood.
Yes, Mason Rudolph went 5-3 as the team's starting quarterback last season. Over his first four games, Rudolph threw seven touchdown passes against just two interceptions and posted a passer rating of over 90 three times. But over his last six, Rudolph's passer rating hit that same benchmark just once. His last four games featured just three touchdowns vs. five interceptions and two games with a passer rating less than 40—including a four-pick nightmare of an outing against the Cleveland Browns.
Devlin Hodges was a nice human interest story—an undrafted rookie known more for his prowess as a duck caller than his accomplishments throwing a football at Samford. Those latter accomplishments shouldn't be undersold—Hodges is the record-holder for career passing yards by an FCS quarterback. But in eight games (including six starts) in Pittsburgh last year, Hodges threw just five touchdown passes, was picked off eight times and barely posted a passer rating above 70.
The Steelers also have 2016 first-rounder Paxton Lynch on the roster. But Lynch hasn't thrown a pass in an NFL game that counts since 2017 and couldn't crack the lineup last year even after Rudolph and Hodges struggled.
An imposing bunch it ain't.
Jameis Winston's Talent
Despite swapping out Jameis Winston for Tom Brady in the offseason, Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Licht told reporters the first overall pick in the 2015 draft has a bright future ahead of him in the pros:
"We have a lot of respect for Jameis. Jameis was still part of our plan if things went a different route. We've got a lot of respect for him. I thought he did a lot of great things, and anybody in our office or building would say the same thing. He did some spectacular things for us. I would never say that, personally -- and I think I speak on behalf of the organization -- that he's a bust. I think he's got a bright future ahead of him."
That Winston still hasn't found a new home would appear to indicate the rest of the NFL is more skeptical. And there's one overriding reason for that skepticism.
Turnovers. Lots and lots of turnovers.
Last year, Winston became the first player in NFL history to throw 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in the same season. In five seasons in the pros, he has tossed 88 interceptions. Add in 23 lost fumbles, and he has turned the ball over more than 1.5 times per game over his career.
However, Winston also led the National Football League with 5,109 passing yards in 2019. He has three seasons with over 4,000 passing yards, 121 career touchdown throws and a passer rating a hair under 87. In each of the last four seasons, he has completed over 60 percent of his passes.
Say what you will about his decision-making, but Winston has one of the better right arms in the game. There isn't a throw on the field he can't make.
The Steelers Are a 'Win Now' Team in 2020
As mentioned earlier, the Steelers remained in the playoff hunt last year despite the mess under center. It's a testament to the talent on the roster on both sides of the ball. This is a good football team. Even if you're dubious about their chances of unseating the Ravens in the AFC North, you have to allow that the Steelers are a serious wild-card contender—especially with an extra playoff team added this season.
However, that window isn't going to stay open forever—even for a team as good at reloading as the Steelers have been.
When Pittsburgh flipped its first-round pick in the 2020 draft to the Miami Dolphins last season for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, it sent a clear message: The Steelers believe they are built to win now.
Still, all windows close. Nowadays, that usually happens when a team's key players play out their rookie deals and are due massive increases in salary.
That's going to happen in Pittsburgh in the not-too-distant future. The Steelers franchise-tagged edge-rusher Bud Dupree, and he'll hit free agency next year. So will veteran defensive end Cameron Heyward. And top wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster. In 2022, star edge-rusher T.J. Watt will be due an extension that will likely make him one of the highest-paid defensive players in the game.
Pittsburgh will have to make some difficult decisions, like it just did with departed defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. Odds are good the 2022 Steelers won't be as good as this year's version.
Now is the time to strike—and that makes getting a better insurance policy under center all the wiser.
It's a Win-Win
It takes two to tango in free agency. For this hypothetical signing to work, Winston has to be on board with the idea of backing up Big Ben in 2020.
He might as well be—because it's just about as good as things are going to get for him.
The ship has essentially sailed on Winston as a starter this season barring an injury. The teams who needed a starting quarterback already went and got one. The two most obvious who haven't (the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots) don't appear to be interested in bringing in a veteran.
Winston is going to be holding a clipboard in 2020—and taking a sizable pay cut.
But this isn't a one-way street. It's not just a matter of a vastly better insurance policy against a Roethlisberger injury for the Steelers.
It offers Winston a best-case opportunity to reboot his NFL career.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the lowest winning percentage of any team in the NFL. It's a franchise that's been in a near-constant struggle from the moment it entered the league. The Steelers, on the other hand, are tied with the New England Patriots for the most Super Bowl wins in league history. Pittsburgh has long been a model of stability. In the last half-century, the Steelers have had three head coaches.
Bruce Arians is Tampa's 12th since 1976.
Like Winston, Roethlisberger had issues with turnovers early in his career—he threw 69 interceptions over his first five years in the league. Like Winston, Roethlisberger's behavior off the field was concerning.
Winston could do worse than to watch Roethlisberger for a year (or two), make a start here and there and then take over as the starter when he hangs them up.
And Pittsburgh would be hard-pressed to find a better successor in the draft—unless the team comes completely off the rails.