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Film Review Week 7: Browns at Bucs - Offense

The Conundrum of Jameis Winston.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The 70 minutes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played vs. the Cleveland Browns last Sunday encapsulated into one example everything they have been under the regime of head coach Dirk Koetter.

Their offense was good through the air, their running game stale, their quarterback mercurial, their defense a bipolar mess, their special teams awful, and the coaching game management left you wanting to pull your hair out. It was frustrating. It was embarrassing. It felt all too familiar. It felt like a loss.

But they came away with the win and, on some level, that’s all that matters. The Bucs were 3-7 in ten one-score games last season. Just six games into the 2018 season the Bucs have endured five such games, and are 3-2. Luck and randomness play a tremendous role in football, carrying far greater an impact than most fans are comfortable to admit.

The Bucs had a minus-3 turnover margin against the Browns, and still came out with the win with a 59-yard field goal in overtime.

The Bucs have one of the best offenses in the league, and the Browns have one of the best defenses, so it was a back-and-forth up-and-down day for both squads.

On the Bucs’ first drive, poor field position pinned them at their own one-yard line. There’s not much you can do there, especially when your offensive line leads the league in getting stuffed. So it’s not a surprise there was a safety. That field position situation gave the Bucs an expected point value of approximately minus-1. In other words, teams in the Bucs’ position (2nd and 10 on your own one-yard line) lose on average about 0.7 to 1.55 points to their opponent. If Tampa punts, the Browns’ offense would have had really good field position that would have been worth anywhere from 2 to 3 points in value. As it was, they got 2 points and punter Bryan Anger kicked it to the Cleveland 7-yard line. That was returned to the Cleveland 19-yard line. That field position (1st and 10 on your own 19) is worth about 1.32 points, and the Browns went three-and-out. So not good, but maybe could have been worse.

Right out of the gate on the Bucs’ first real drive of the game, Jameis Winston tried to get it to receiver DeSean Jackson. Shockingly, it fell incomplete.

Winston’s deep ball is subject to a lot of interpretation and personal bias. Most think Winston simply can’t hit it, no matter what. It’s hard to argue; verticals outside the numbers are easily Winston’s worst throw. He completed them last year at a 13% clip, half of the naturally low-percentage league-average 25% rate. Still others believe he is over-thinking it. On this play, it looks like Winston simply lets it go too early. Like he’s throwing to a spot on the field and not to the receiver, similar to what he does on other more routine throws. As if instead of a natural connection it’s just another timing route, and for whatever reason he can’t get the timing down. Is that really the case? Too much air, not enough air, too far downfield, too short. We’ve seen him alter what he’s trying to do, but it just doesn’t work. He has improved other aspects of his game significantly since entering the league in 2015, but any improvement in the two worst aspects of his game - deep ball accuracy and turnovers - still frustratingly continues to elude him.

On the very next play, 3rd and 10, he shows off an aspect of his game he has improved - his pocket manipulation.

I’ve been meaning to show this kind of play for a while now. This is a play Winston doesn’t make his rookie season, and would flash in 2016 and 2017. But in 2018 it is a regular part of his game. His ability to feel pressure has always been good, but this year he has become better at deftly moving in and around the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield and delivering the throw. In past years this might have gone for a strip-sack fumble, even if he stepped up in the pocket, or he would have rushed his throw. And the former first-overall pick Myles Garrett did get one later in this game. But what I’ve noticed this year is a better and more consistent job of manipulating the pocket and changing the angle of his body to help the throw work. He flattens it out toward his target and that allows this play to succeed. But what’s remarkable is he does so smoothly, not jerky and uncoordinated and rushed like he used to. That couldn’t always be said. This type of play isn’t possible without the lower-body work he’s put in during the last three years, and it kept the drive alive on a long passing down. It’s not just for scrambling!

Later in this drive, they had another 3rd and long:

Couple things to note here. First, the offensive line miscommunication allowing a free rusher happened numerous times in this game, and often in key situations. This one was between Ryan Jensen and Caleb Benenoch, and maybe Jacquizz Rodgers. I saw another later between Ali Marpet and Jensen. We don’t really know whose fault they were because we don’t know the blocking assignments, but each time someone looked confused thinking someone else was picking up the defender running by them. Winston does a great job here bailing on the play, and almost puts it in a spot Mike Evans could get on the sideline instead of throwing it up into the middle of the field.

Great play design, getting O.J. Howard open on the pick play with nothing but the end zone ahead of him. Unfortunately, it’s an awful throw. Winston, with a clean pocket, tries for the back-shoulder throw instead of lofting a pass Howard can run under. Thankfully, the Bucs scored two plays later anyway on a Jackson handoff. Winston later made a perfect back-shoulder throw to Howard for 24 yards that set up a first-and-goal later in the game. On this one though, I think because of the pick the back-shoulder is the wrong way to go.

I can’t tell if he pump faked because he seriously wanted to throw it or if it was just to fake out the defense. I’m not sure anyone knows. But it worked, and shows another aspect of Winston’s game that has matured. Instead of throwing this into coverage, he picked up 14 yards and the first down. He did that a lot this game.

Here’s a throw not that dissimilar to the one he misfired to Howard that is right on the money, and Jackson drops it. Luckily, Winston would scramble in for the touchdown a few plays later. But this is the frustrating thing. He can hit all the throws - but he’s inconsistent. And even when he does put it where it needs to be sometimes the rest of the team doesn’t do their part, even if they do their part the other 90 percent of the time. Such is a Buc’s life.

One play after dropping a 25-yard vertical outside the numbers fade right on a dime to Mike Evans, comes Winston’s first interception of the day:

This should be a touchdown. It’s a horrible throw. It’s not that Winston doesn’t see the defender, it’s that he still believes his arm, which is good, is better than it is. So he tries to just fastball-power this past the linebacker on a rope, and it’s an interception. When an easy throw lofted over the ‘backer gets Howard running free into the end zone for a touchdown. There’s no excuse for this pick.

On the Bucs’ next possession, Cameron Brate fumbled with a minute left in the first half and it was returned to inside the Bucs’ 20-yard line. If Lavonte David weren’t a stud, Brate would have cost the Bucs’ points, and the Bucs were lucky it didn’t.

On the Bucs’ next possession after that, their first of the second half, they again couldn’t get out of their own way, inviting the Browns back into the game. Left tackle Donovan Smith, who has improved significantly and been very good this year, gave up a strip-sack fumble of Winston. Going up against Myles Garrett is a tough if not impossible assignment, and overall Smith did a great job. But plays like these can’t happen. Garrett gets by Smith so quickly that even Winston didn’t think Garrett was there. This time the Browns capitalized on their short field for the touchdown. Instead of the Bucs going up a potential three scores, the Browns’ touchdown made it a one-score game.

On their next drive, a holding penalty by Benenoch and a false start by Smith killed the possession.

I have to show this:

The power Peyton Barber runs with is incredible. Benenoch is for some reason asked to execute a difficult block on a pull and he of course blows his assignment. Barber sheds two tackles, including Benenoch’s man, before power-sled dragging linebacker Jamie Collins five yards. Barber turns a four or five yard loss into a two-yard gain. So it goes down in the stat sheet as a two-yard gain, but not all two-yard gains are the same.

On the next drive, more horrible field position for the offense. The defense got a great goal-line stand, but it put the Bucs on their own one-yard line. On third down, they run this play:

I don’t mind the formation or the pass call. But I do mind the play. A delayed mesh concept is not the way to go in my opinion. It’s just too slow-developing. No one is open, and Winston is sacked. The Browns return the ensuing punt to the 30-yard line and promptly cash in on seven points in one play, tying the game at 23. The Bucs should have blown the Browns out - instead, a comedy of errors not only let them back into the game but blew the entire lead almost as quickly as humanly possible.

On their last possession of regulation, the Bucs had 2:28 seconds and three timeouts from their own 25-yard line in a tie game. Winston drives them down to the Cleveland 35-yard line with 53 seconds left, and the Bucs still had all of their timeouts. Dirk Koetter, in just about one of the worst game management decisions you’ll ever see, decides to run Rodgers once, have Winston place it in the middle of the hash marks, and kick a 40-yard field goal. Which Chandler Catanzaro of course misses. Koetter’s game management here would get him fired if this were a similar situation later in a season. But it should be remembered for the fireable offense it is regardless of situation.

In overtime, Winston throws his second interception:

Koetter said a receiver, likely Ronald Jones, ran the wrong route. Collins was covering Jones, who runs into the flat here. He should have sat in the middle of the field on a curl. Collins, who is reading Winston’s eyes, also drifts to stay on top of Jones and ends up right in the passing lane. Winston, somehow, throws it right to Collins.

Here’s another angle of it:

You can’t make that pass.

Winston was looking at Godwin the whole way, then muscle memory probably took over as he turned and fired it to the spot they’ve practiced throwing it to over and over again, except a linebacker was right there. Winston has to be able to see him with his peripheral vision. You just can’t make that pass. With that said, you can see Collins mirroring Jones almost perfectly. If Jones plays his assignment correctly, Godwin is very likely open.

Against a better team, it would have and should have cost the Bucs the win. But it’s the Browns, and despite the Bucs’ best efforts, the Browns out-Brown’d the Bucs. The defense somehow got another stop, the Bucs went three-and-out on a run-pass-pass series, the Browns fumbled the punt, the Bucs go three-and-out again except a Browns penalty gave the Bucs a new first down, Winston lives to old age in the pocket, dies, is born and lives to old age again, and is finally sacked on a play you absolutely can’t take a sack on where he should have thrown the ball away a lifetime ago that takes the Bucs out of field goal range, gets sacked again on a play where he had no chance, and then makes an insane throw... get into what isn’t field goal range to try a 59-yard field goal that your kicker who can’t make extra points somehow drills for the win. Whew.

The Bucs easily could have, or should have, lost. They just as easily should have blown the Browns out. A combination of turnovers and bad field position killed at least four drives, or scoring opportunities. I say that because every time this offense has the ball they are capable of scoring. They’re very good, even in a year where everyone is good at offense. That’s why this game was a microcosm of the season. If a few more breaks had gone their way and they took better care of the ball they’d be 5-1. But they could just as easily be 1-5.

Inside this game lies the conundrum of Jameis Winston. Brilliant one play, horrible the next. Brilliant for 90 percent of the time, but the other 10 percent his accuracy is scattershot, he’s throwing interceptions, and missing critical shot plays. He’s a low-floor, high-ceiling player. That’s what he was coming out of college, and four years later that’s what he still is. In many aspects of his game, like the ones pointed out here, he’s raised his floor. He’s streaky, but he’s not nearly as streaky as he used to be. If you remember, he would have games where he was so inaccurate you could tell by the first drive whether the Bucs would win or not. He would be streaky from game to game. Then it was drive to drive. Now it’s poor plays sprinkled in. He somehow does enough to win and lose you the game almost every week. But when it comes to his two biggest flaws - his deep ball accuracy and his turnovers - how much improvement has he really made? And if he hasn’t made any, has he really raised his floor? If he hasn’t, how much longer is he going to get?

Market economics of the league will probably give him at least one more season in Tampa Bay after this one. I say that because the Bucs are in all likelihood very unlikely to find someone better before then. I have doubts Koetter will survive this season, and whoever the new coach is will probably be hired based on their plan for Jameis. Koetter was retained to help Winston and sure, Winston has improved every year in tangible ways, but arguably not where it matters most, or in the areas he needed the most help. Can someone else help him get to where he needs to be?

By the time we know the answers to these questions Winston will probably be, at least statistically, the best quarterback the franchise has ever had. For all of his flaws, he’s not nearly as bad as most of his critics believe. Two things play into his turnovers being magnified. First, he has never had a good or really even an average defense backing him up. So when he makes a mistake, it is compounded more than it otherwise would be. Since entering the league in 2015, the Bucs’ defense have ranked the following in points per drive allowed: 27th, 17th, 30th, and so far this season 31st. The one year they were average, in 2016, the Bucs narrowly missed the playoffs at 9-7. They were only average in points because they got an unsustainable rate of turnovers - they were still one of the worst defenses in yards per play allowed.

Secondly, the Bucs run an older scheme in the Air Coryell. Sure, it’s been tweaked to be somewhat modernized, but the base scheme has been around for at least 40 years. It’s an offense that will naturally come with more interceptions than others; that’s just the trade-off for chunks of yards. The thing is most of the rest of the NFL has largely evolved around the Bucs to throw shorter and quicker, and therefore interceptions rates have fallen for years now and continue to fall. Winston’s numbers are historically low, but high for this era. He needs to be able to throw downfield more often than his peers while also throwing interceptions at a similar rate as his peers. That’s admittedly a lot to ask. But we must also admit that to this point he has failed at that mission.

The real question we should asking is - is this as good as it gets? And is that enough?

We’d like him to be better than he is at this point, but the quarterbacks most analogous to Winston (3.02 percent interception rate) all had similar or worse interception rates early in their careers (Years 1-4 combined) and all got significantly more time than just four years:

Eli Manning (3.55 percent - still with Giants)

Jay Cutler (3.55 percent - retired)

Ben Roethlisberger (3.76 percent - still with Steelers) and

Brett Favre (3.36 percent - traded by Falcons after one year with few reps, played 15 years in Green Bay).

Only Cutler was traded early in his career after significant playing time (two years in Denver), but he wasn’t traded because of his interceptions and he still got seven seasons in Chicago before the Bears moved on. So why should Winston be any different?

From these quarterback’s fifth years on to their last or most recent years, their interception rates are as follows:

Eli (2.87 percent)

Cutler (3.08 percent)

Roethlisberger (2.37 percent)

Favre (3.29 percent)

In all cases their interception rates dropped, though Favre’s only did slightly. Winston should get more time, even if we acknowledge that time might be running out.

Your moment of zen: