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The Bucs’ only way out is to blow it all up

It’s time to have the talk.

NFL International Series-Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

The problem with Jameis Winston isn’t that he’s bad. It’s that he’s also good.

If he were only bad he’d be Blake Bortles, and the question of whether to move on from him would be an easy one to answer. For all of his bad games, Winston has at least as many if not more games where he’s played exceptionally well. He routinely makes plays that few quarterbacks can make and even fewer fans appreciate.

The end result is the Bucs are stuck.

They’re stuck because they already lack top impact talent at the next three most important positions after quarterback — offensive tackle, cornerback, edge rusher — and adding quarterback to that list only lengthens the rebuild, perhaps considerably so.

They’re stuck because this is the type of player Winston is. He will never stop trying to do too much, and he will never stop having to do too much because there’s zero indication the Buccaneers will ever put a quality team around him.

Among the just seven quarterbacks in franchise history to even attempt 1,000 passes with the team, Winston is the franchise’s all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns, touchdown percentage, passer rating, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, and adjusted net yards per attempt (by over three-quarters of a yard per play, by the way — the difference between Jameis in first in ANY/A and Josh Freeman second, is the same as the distance between Freeman and fifth-place Steve DeBerg). He’s done all that despite playing in just the fifth-most games of that group. Would you believe it if I told you that Winston has a worse winning percentage than Freeman, even though Winston’s interception percentage (and everything else) is actually better?

If you were to add up all the times Winston has had the benefit of his team being in the top ten in either points per drive allowed, special teams, and/or starting field position — all things outside his control — it would add up to zero. Not once. If you were to add up all the times the Bucs were bottom ten in each of those categories since 2015 it would be eight times. The only season since Winston was drafted that the Bucs weren’t bottom ten in any of those categories was 2016, the year the Bucs went 9-7 and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker with the Detroit Lions. That was Winston’s least efficient season per ANY/A, but also the one he put up the most yards, touchdowns and interceptions (18, but his third-lowest interception percentage) of his career. It’s also Tampa Bay’s only winning season since 2010.

Perhaps coincidentally, 2010 was also the last time the Bucs didn’t finish in the bottom ten in at least one of those categories.

Currently in this season the Bucs are again bottom ten in pts/drive allowed, average in special teams (20th, just outside the bottom ten), and rank tenth in average starting field position. If it holds for the rest of the season, Winston’s support would be 1-9 after five seasons. If he were to play another five seasons in Tampa Bay with similar teams, it’d be 2-18.

Winston’s poor play is a problem, it just isn’t THE problem. He has more interceptions than anyone else in the league since he was drafted, and what feels like an equal number of fumbles. Instead of rising above his poor teams like Peyton Manning was capable of doing, Winston does the opposite. He tries to do too much and forces it, and instead ends up becoming part of the problem.

He’s not Peyton or Aaron Rodgers, and he never will be. That ship has sailed. But the point is that he’d have to be, to win with the teams he’s been given. The Bucs know it too. When Dirk Koetter sat Winston down during a 2017 episode of Hard Knocks, a bunch of truths were revealed, intentionally and otherwise. Winston asked Koetter about doing too much, and Koetter’s reply was,

...we have a good defense now, so...maybe we gotta cut our risk a little bit. Your M.O. in your career was, you’ve always been a risk taker. Even if it got you into trouble early in the game, either you’ve been good enough or your team’s been good enough, to bail you out of it. And now we have a good team, by far the best team we’ve had since you’ve been in the NFL. And you are a guy that’s able to win a game. But you’re also — we don’t need you to lose a game for us; you’re the only guy that can really lose a game for us, cause no one else touches the ball enough. So, there’s a fine line there. And you’re a great competitor...but we gotta get some patience in there.

That clip tells us everything. It perfects distills the era of Jameis Winston into less than 90 seconds. Who Winston is, his inability to clamp down on his instincts to be the hero; the Superman who makes every play for his team. His lack of patience, to this day. And it tells us about the awareness and lack of awareness from his coaches and the poor coaching that he’s received in his career. Dirk wasn’t wrong about Winston, but he all but admits that he knows Winston tries to be Superman because he had to — because they both knew the team hadn’t been good.

The Shakespearean tragedy of it all is that the 2017 Bucs were again bottom ten in points per drive allowed by the defense and in special teams. Koetter, the head coach, couldn’t even accurately evaluate what kind of team he really had. But Winston tried, because he had the lowest interception percentage of his career in 2017. To top it all off, the Bucs regressed even further and were bottom ten in all three categories in 2018. Coupled with the pressure of matching Ryan Fitzpatrick’s historically good and unsustainable start to the 2018 season while Winston got himself suspended, and the knowledge his team was worse than ever, Winston responded that year by forcing the ball even more and finishing with the worst interception percentage of his career. As the Bucs regressed, so did Winston.

None of this is an argument for keeping Winston, and only a fool would think it’s a mounted defense of him or his play. He’s responsible for the mistakes that he’s made and all the plays he’s tried to force. Despite re-setting all the franchise records, the truth is that he hasn’t been good enough. At this point there’s no excuses left. No one would fault the Bucs from moving on from Winston at the end of this season, and no one should.

This is simply an argument that Winston’s mistakes are irrevocably tied to the team’s own failures, and that he’s not at fault for those. The team hasn’t been good enough either. What would Winston look like today if he’d had a consistently good (top ten) team around him these last three to five seasons and he didn’t feel like he had to be a Superman? We don’t know, because it’s never happened. He came to Tampa Bay with that flaw — the Bucs just made sure they baked it into him.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Chicago Bears
Khalil Mack #52 of the Chicago Bears hits the arm of Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers causing an interception during the game at Soldier Field on September 30, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears won 48-10.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

When he plays within the scheme, he’s fine, like weeks 2-4 this season. But sooner or later he’ll feel the pressure to play outside of it. To be Superman. Because his team will need him. And he won’t be able to stop himself. His turnovers have become so predictable you could set a watch to it.

The point is that we’re never going to see what Winston looks like with a good team around him, because there’s no reason to believe it’s ever going to happen, at least not while he’s in Tampa Bay. They failed to do it while he was on a cheap rookie deal; why should there be any faith they’d be able to do it after he’s given a second contract worth far more? There’s also no reason to believe Winston is anything but broken. Years of the Bucs reinforcing his bad habits and putting him in poor situations have left little hope Winston will be able to turn it around. Even if they could put a team around him, it’s probably too late for him. We’ve reached something like miracle territory.

Sure, they could hold onto Winston and try to add those other pieces they need. But that seems like a one-way ticket to football purgatory at 8-8. Does anyone really believe Winston can hit the reset button on himself? They could also try to pick up another quarterback, whose lows are surely to be higher but whose highs are also surely to be lower. But they will step into the same situation Winston has been in. Less picks but less touchdowns won’t equal more wins when the defense is still giving up tons of points.

They could try to draft one, but the Bucs would have to give up significant draft capital to move into position to take one of the next Draft’s top quarterbacks. Which is what they’d have to do to ensure their best possible chance at a better quarterback than Jameis. It’s also capital they can’t afford to expend, especially since any new quarterback wouldn’t magically fix the team or the root causes of the Bucs’ lack of winning, like a perennially poor defense.

If they couldn’t put a team around Winston, how can anyone claim with a straight face that they’d all of a sudden be able to put one around a different quarterback? And Bruce Arians just turned 67. Does anyone realistically believe he’s going to want to stay for the ups and downs of a new rookie quarterback after he came to Tampa specifically because of Winston and general manager Jason Licht? Should he even get the chance, after proving he, like Koetter, doesn’t understand the values of throwing on first down, running a QB-friendly scheme, or fourth-down math?

No, the only way the Bucs can get out of this mess that they’ve helped create is to hit the reset button on their own. Which is why I’m convinced the only conclusion is to blow the whole thing up and start over. The players, the coaching staff, the front office staff, the whole thing. Even and especially the best, most talented quarterback they’ve ever had. It’s time to part ways. It’s time for the Buccaneers to radically reinvent themselves.

As for what that would look like, I don’t know. But I’d settle for a new quarterback and a coach that runs a QB-friendly scheme and understands fourth-down math.

The problem is, they’re stuck. After all, who would want to come to a team that fired yet another coach, this time after just one year?