It feels like belaboring the point to speak about Winston’s football IQ, ability to see the field, anticipate the defense and find the holes in the defense before they materialize, but it can’t be understated. This is the single biggest trait of successful NFL quarterbacks and is usually developed in the league, rather than being apparent in college. To be sure, Winston had far more opportunities to display this in the FSU offense where every receiver is live on almost every play as opposed to many of the spread systems where if the second read isn’t open the quarterback is taught to bail the pocket. Winston’s college experience in a pro style system that includes extensive checks and audibles as well as the responsibility for adjusting pass blocking schemes is much commented on, but what isn’t commented on is the variety and complexity of defensive schemes he saw.
Obviously no scouting report on Winston can be complete without addressing the interceptions. Eighteen interceptions is a remarkable number, but every interception has its own story that has to be parsed. Generally speaking interceptions fall into three categories: mistakes by the receiver (either batted balls or wrong routes), inaccurate throws, and bad decisions where the QB misidentified the coverage or didn’t see a defender. It’s been reported that FSU coaches told NFL teams that only 5 of the 18 interceptions were Winston’s fault. Personally, I suspect this is a garbled version of Fisher saying that only 5 were caused by a bad decision, with the others being receiver mistakes or inaccurate throws, which is more believable. Interceptions caused by inaccurate throws have to be credited to the QB and addressed through mechanical improvements.
The single biggest issue that came to light in the 2014 season for Winston was a tendency to lose track of hook/curl zone defenders when throwing routes that are heading into those zones. The vast majority of Winston’s bad decision INTs came when throwing to a receiver breaking towards the middle of the underneath coverage. This is something his NFL coaches will have to address. NFL linebackers who can close distance much faster will pose a problem if this is not corrected.
Ultimately, Winston’s success in the NFL hinges on his ability to moderate his aggression and confidence to appropriate levels while ironing out his remaining mechanical flaws. In terms of pocket awareness, ball placement, football IQ and arm strength, Winston will be in the top half of NFL quarterbacks the first time he steps on the field, but the league is not kind to quarterbacks who don’t protect the football. Being a number 1 pick will earn Winston significant leeway, but it’s not endless. It’s also open to question how patient and supportive a head coach who needs to win now will be with his young quarterback.
Four years later, this has aged well; both the good and the bad. He is still a high-ceiling and low-floor player. Winston’s two main holes in his game - inconsistent accuracy due to mechanical flaws, and his interceptions - are still the root of his issues. But it’s more than that - he has regressed.
He was a massive failure on Sunday. He threw four interceptions, including his first pick-six since 2016. His 2018 interception rate now sits at an ugly 6.76 percent, easily the highest in the NFL and more than twice his rate in any other year. In fact, because of his poor play in 2018, no one with at least 500 attempts since 2015 has a higher interception rate than Jameis Winston. He got benched for the first time in his football career.
There’s no black and white way to look at this. It is a complicated problem, and everyone shares fault. It starts with Winston, of course; he’s the one throwing the interceptions after all. He has not been able to moderate his aggression and confidence to acceptable levels for any length of time. He still believes his arm is invincible and that there’s always a play to be made. It’s a fundamental mistake in the NFL. Yet he still refuses to throw it away. He can’t hit the deep vertical. It’s also fair to ask whether Winston has internalized the pressure he’s put on himself to outplay Ryan Fitzpatrick’s shocking and historically good play this season. Winston has also arguably made poor choices in who he hires to train with, and I believe this has contributed negatively to Winston’s throwing mechanics, both before and after he was drafted and during his suspension this season. It’s impossible to quantify the impact, but Winston’s mechanics looked great in the preseason and have since disintegrated. Or at least, they did in the Bengals game.
Lastly, the coaching staff also shares significant fault in Winston’s lack of development. Four years later, they have failed to substantially develop Winston in either of the areas he needed the most help. Before joining the Buccaneers, QB coach Mike Bajakian had four years of QB coaching experience, all at lower-level college programs like Sacred Heart. Dirk Koetter has no QB coaching experience, having been an offensive coordinator for most of his career. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who joined the staff in 2016 when Koetter was promoted to head coach in order to safeguard Winston’s development, had 4 years of college QB coaching experience.
Juxtapose that with the former Philadelphia Eagles’ staff that won a Super Bowl last season. Eagles QB Carson Wentz had significant mechanical flaws related to his footwork when he came out of college. Head coach Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich, and QB coach John DeFillippo had eleven combined years of NFL QB coaching experience when Wentz was drafted and DeFillippo had an additional five years of college QB coaching experience. Within two seasons, Wentz’s mechanical flaws were largely erased.
When you look at the Bucs’ coaches’ skill sets, it makes sense. Koetter has always been an OC, and Monken is a really good OC/passing game coordinator/WR coach. That’s his background. It makes sense the Bucs have a really good offense; it is designed well. You get out what you put in. Therefore, it’s fair to ask whether Winston has gotten the QB coaching he needed and still needs.
There’s also the sticky subject of the scheme itself. Many will disagree, but an offense built on being aggressive and asking the quarterback to complete tight-window throws downfield not just occasionally but constantly may not in the end have been the right scheme for Winston. It requires a steady consistent QB with a high floor - like a Matt Ryan. Four years later, Winston is still a low-floor player. I’d argue his floor has gotten lower. So in hindsight, it seems that asking a player who has trouble reigning in his aggression and confidence and requiring him to be aggressive down the field not just a few times a game but at least 20 times was maybe a bad idea that was likely to backfire. It does nothing to hide his biggest weaknesses and arguably emphasizes them. But this is the scheme that Koetter has always run. Even if we acknowledge he tweaked his offense to fit it to Winston, doesn’t it still fail the test of the cardinal rule of coaching - to always put your players in the best position to succeed?
In addition, any talk about the staff failing Winston has to include the defense. Quarterbacks on bad teams tend to throw interceptions at higher rates than other quarterbacks. This is because the quarterback on a bad team must take risks he normally wouldn’t in order to try and score, because he knows his defense is likely give up another score. Winston has never benefitted from even an average defense:
Jameis Winston has lost 12 starts over the last season and a half.— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) October 29, 2018
In 5 of those games, he threw for 250+ yards and had a passer rating over 110. No other QB has more than 3 such losses since 2017.https://t.co/UMGGQxauJu
Another cost of poor defense is it magnifies the cost of any interceptions. Here are the Bucs’ defense’s rankings in points per drive allowed since Winston was drafted:
2015 - 31st
2016 - 17th
2017 - 30th
2018 - 30th
Koetter, when promoted to head coach for the 2016 season, chose to hire his friend Mike Smith as defensive coordinator. During an episode of the HBO show Hard Knocks before the 2017 season, Koetter sat Winston down and told him he needed to cut down on his turnovers because “...we have a good defense now, so maybe we got to cut our risk a little bit”. That defense went on to be the worst in the NFL. Koetter chose to keep Smith on staff for the 2018 season. Before he was fired earlier this season, Smith was coordinating what was at the time the worst defense in NFL history. It’s not insane to believe Winston has thrown more interceptions, and that those interceptions have been more costly than they normally would have, because of the failure of the staff and front office to put a good team around Winston. It would be insane to believe they didn’t have any effect.
In short, while it’s absolutely true Winston has failed to make good decisions on (and off) the field and deserved to get benched for his horrible play, it is unquestionable that he has felt the effects of a nearly-total organizational failure.
That is what we all saw on Sunday. Not just one player being horrible for an afternoon, but after four years the culmination of bad or questionable choices on the part of many people. This is what that looks like:
Here is the first interception, which came on the Bucs’ first drive of the game.
I don’t know if this is just a poor throw or a result of miscommunication (or both) because Winston thought Evans would continue his vertical stem instead of slanting inside. Only the coaches know for sure. I lean miscommunication for several reasons. First, Winston, because of his anticipation, is throwing this at the exact moment right as Evans is making his break to the inside. In Koetter’s offense the receivers do have rules to make route adjustments based on the coverage. Evans may have thought because of the two split safeties he should cross the face of the safety lined up over him by slanting into the hole in the zone. If this is miscommunication it would make sense Winston would think Evans would continue the vertical stem because the linebacker in the middle of the field is dropping into a Tampa-2 look right into that hole and flips his hips toward Evans right as Winston is winding his throw. There isn’t a really good angle of the throw because the only other camera angle is from the back of the end zone and not behind the pocket, and it doesn’t show Evans.
His second interception came on the Bucs’ third drive. Here’s the first angle of it:
This is maybe the worst, ugliest interception I’ve ever seen. This PA bootleg is a play the Bucs have run since Winston was a rookie, and I’ve always hated it because the defensive end is never fooled and basically has a free rush at the quarterback handed on a silver platter. The way this play works is Winston executes the PA and then is supposed to whip his head around to find his key, which is one of the linebackers. Depending on what the linebacker does (bite on run fake or drop into coverage), that tells Winston whether to throw to Evans or dump it off. However, the end closes the gap so quickly Winston has no chance. The end does a great job taking outside leverage to prevent Winston from scrambling, but it also cuts off the passing lane to Humphries. The ideal play here was to Humphries, but there just isn’t enough time to get it off without floating a pass off his back foot that could get intercepted by the corner. So really, Winston is left with no good options. Except to eat the sack or throw it away. But he refuses to do either, and tries to throw it to Evans. The other angle shows us why:
As he’s done before with success, Winston trusts Evans to be his security blanket. But, because the linebacker No.52 was stacked behind the defensive lineman No.92, Winston doesn’t see him. He should know by now that throwing into traffic like that is likely to end badly. He must learn to throw the ball away. Sometimes that is not only the best play, but your only play. He should have already learned that. There are college quarterbacks who understand that. Winston often makes his worst decisions in poor situations, and this is one of the worst you will ever see. These two turnovers on the far side of the field cost the Bucs points.
The Bucs’ next drive ended in a punt. By the time they got the ball back, it was 21-0 Bengals. That’s when Winston finally hit a deep ball. It was, finally, not a called vertical outside the numbers but on a post route into the middle of the field. It’s not a perfectly accurate throw but it’s more than good enough.
It’s not even good protection though, as right guard Evan Smith is easily beat and almost blows this play up. The Bengals are playing Cover 4 or Quarters, and DeSean Jackson just blows past the secondary with his speed. It also allows Winston to get rid of the ball quicker, just before the rush gets him. Ironically, this touchdown kept Winston in the game longer than it might have otherwise, and he made two more critical turnovers after this.
Also, kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed yet another extra point. When Winston got the ball back, his team was down 27-6, the Bucs’ defense having allowed touchdowns on four straight drives. They aren’t historically bad anymore, just your run-of-the-mill worst defense in the league.
Quickly, just for fun so this review isn’t all bad, I wanted to point out something that is pure Air Raid:
The spacing here and the route combinations essentially creates a screen without having to use any blockers. It’s beautiful. Peyton Barber punched it in for the touchdown.
Then came Winston’s third interception of the day:
Brate is the target, who gives a quick chip before moving into the short middle of the field. This interception isn’t a bad decision, it’s just a really bad throw. And it’s a bad throw because of poor mechanics. Center Ryan Jensen is tossed by the nose tackle, who then comes bearing down on Winston. As a result, Winston just arms this throw with a poor base, and it sails on him.
The Bengals went three and out, but on the ensuing Tampa Bay possession, Winston threw his fourth interception, a devastating pick-six, and final attempt of the day. The score was 27-16 and the Bucs were on their own 10-yard line:
The Bengals are again in Quarters zone coverage in an attempt to keep everything in front of them and not get beat deep. It looks like the Bucs have a man-beater route combo to the left boundary side with DeSean Jackson on an out and Chris Godwin on a curl, and a zone-beater to to the right on far the field side. Winston recognized the coverage before the snap and likely believed he had the hole in the zone with Humphries, which is a common hole in that type of coverage. Therefore, he knew where he should go before the snap, which can look on the broadcast that he’s staring down his target. That’s not always the case, but here, I think there was definitely a little bit of that. Because it’s on the field side it’s a farther throw. The corner presses Humphries to disrupt the timing of the route, and Bengals safety Jessie Bates makes a great read of Winston and cuts in front of the throw for the interception. Bates is a really good player, a second-round rookie. Fun fact, the Bucs drafted nickel corner M.J. Stewart the pick right before the Bengals took Bates.
Ryan Fitzpatrick came in the game, and led a field goal drive. One thing I’ve noticed is he’s much quicker at bailing on a play. Where Winston will wait for the routes to develop and try to find someone to throw it to, and scramble if he has to, Fitzpatrick is much quicker to bail on a play and take off. That’s not always a good thing, but it’s not always bad either.
Here is Fitzpatrick’s big touchdown to Mike Evans:
The protection is good, but this play is all Mike Evans. Evans destroys the Bengals safety (not Bates) on a double move and it’s over just like that. The Bengals look like they’re in Cover 2. Brate’s curl draws the corner and makes the linebacker hesitate. Evans sells the post route that gets the safety to bite and then comes back on the vertical. It doesn’t get easier than that for a quarterback.
On the next drive, Fitzpatrick tries the deep ball again, this time to Jackson.
This is an accurate ball, but it’s perfect coverage by the defensive back. The corner uses the sideline to squeeze Jackson out of the play, and is in perfect position to intercept this ball. It even hits him in the breadbasket, but Jackson does a great job knocking it out.
Here are the two plays that tied the game:
Great placement on the first to Howard for the touchdown. On the successful two-point conversion, Fitzpatrick missed an early open read in the flat, but did a great job extending the play and finding Godwin in a tight window. Unfortunately, as they’ve done all year, the defense gave up the field with just a minute left and the Bengals kicked the field goal for the win.
It’s important to remember that Fitzpatrick, while he’s playing better than Winston and certainly deserves to be starting, isn’t that different from Winston. They are both low-percentage, turnover-prone, explosive quarterbacks. But Fitzpatrick is more consistently explosive down the field, and coupled with his decisions to quickly bail on plays and take off running, he lowers his opportunities to throw interceptions. He is averaging 29 attempts per game this season while Winston is averaging 37. Getting down the field in one play instead of five or six 15-20 yard throws makes a huge difference in terms of risk. Before the Bengals game Winston was still better than Fitzpatrick in the intermediate range and the red zone, but now he’s too much of a turnover risk as there’s very little consistency to his play. He’s good 90 percent of the time, but that other 10 percent isn’t just bad, it’s really bad. It’s so bad the other 90 percent doesn’t matter. Here’s what Football Outsiders had to say about Winston’s game:
In keeping with the theme of our essay, Winston had a lot of good plays in this game. He finished with 15 successful plays; only Ben Roethlisberger and Patrick Mahomes had more in the first three quarters this week. He had 14 first downs; only Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins had more through three quarters. If you take out everyone’s sacks and interceptions, Winston was seventh in DYAR through three quarters. On the other hand, if you look only at sacks and interceptions, he wasn’t just the worst quarterback of the week, he had nearly twice as much negative DYAR as anyone else.
We’ve seen all the reasons for Winston’s turnovers in this game, and they run the gamut from poor decisions, poor throws because of bad mechanics, probable miscommunication, and perhaps a just tip-your-cap good defensive play that came at a really bad time and place. You can also argue Winston still has an issue with looking for favorites instead of the open man.
So it’s is not all bad for Winston. He is doing good things that few quarterbacks can do, things that would seem to imply he can still have a bright future ahead of him as a quarterback. But that’s the enigma of Jameis Winston. There has never been anyone like him - simultaneously so good and yet so bad. His career isn’t over, and there’s a non-zero chance he will start again at some point this year. But this is poignant:
The beautiful irony here is that Lovie Smith was fired so that the team could keep Dirk Koetter, ostensibly for the work Koetter had done with Winston in his rookie year. Now, Koetter’s best chance to keep his job appears to require that he be the one to give up on Jameis Winston.
To take it a step further, it sure looks like Winston’s best chance of salvaging his career is to be free of Koetter. It looks like Winston has lost any confidence the team had in him, and his career in Tampa Bay may be over after this season. It may even be for the best.