A lot has been written about Jameis Winston’s upcoming 2019 season. It is undoubtedly a huge season for him. He must perform reasonably well to secure a second contract from the Buccaneers. Generally that is assumed to mean he’s going to have to stop throwing interceptions. But there’s a problem with that.
He’s not gonna.
There are many reasons for this. Yes, there’s enough data to believe Winston just is who he is at this point. He’s going to take risks and throw picks. He will always be a gunslinger type of quarterback. Another reason is that new head coach Bruce Arians’ entire offensive philosophy is built on ‘no risk it no biscuit’. That fits Winston’s play-style perfectly. But as we saw under Dirk Koetter, that’s not enough. Despite the similarities in mentality there as well, Koetter’s offense did not fit Winston. It required a high-floor, static QB, in large part because it was almost entirely predicated upon deep passing. It was built to give yards after the catch 30-40 yards down the field, not 5-10 yards, or a blend of both. Winston is a streaky, rhythm thrower who can’t throw it deep with any consistent accuracy; simultaneously a high and low-floor player. It’s not illegal to scheme a five-yard throw to get 30 yards after the catch. But Koetter never adjusted his offense, continuing to run as vertical an offense as possible while most of the rest of the league’s offenses became predicated upon scheming players open with short passes in space with room to run. Predictably, Winston struggled.
That’s why Winston’s interceptions are such an issue. Back when offense’s like Koetter’s were the league norm, interception rates were high. Bigger, riskier throws are going to come with more interceptions. That’s the trade-off. Compared to that era, Winston’s interceptions aren’t an issue. He’d be an elite quarterback. But we aren’t in that era anymore. As spread concepts proliferated around the league, so have interception rates fallen, and continue to fall. Like the tide going out, leaving Winston sticking out like a sore thumb. Making him a liability.
That doesn’t mean Winston can’t be a viable, or even elite starter in this league. Just that expecting some huge magical turnaround to just...happen...isn’t going to happen. If he’s going to salvage his ‘franchise quarterback’ label, coaches are going to have to help him. The way to address Winston’s interceptions (and by extension raising his floor) is three-fold. First, his mechanics. He often throws poor or inaccurate balls because his mechanics aren’t consistent. Koetter did not hire a very experienced quarterbacks coach (and Winston arguably made very poor choices in who he hired privately), but Arians has; hopefully that pays dividends, but it will take time.
Secondly, scheme. Scheme is the primary way to help Winston. It’s vitally important that it fits him and that it includes rhythm and schemed throws that take the guesswork out of the equation. We know Arians isn’t in the quarterback room as new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich installs the offense with Winston. At this point we don’t know what this offense is going to look like, and how much, if any, rhythm or schemed-open throws are going to be incorporated. But we can be reasonably certain it will be vertical, that ‘no risk it no biscuit’ will still be an obvious thread through the offense, and that Winston will throw interceptions because of it.
But to what extent it will be vertical will be something to closely watch in camp. Matthew Stafford once had an issue with interceptions, but a scheme change neutered that. It also largely neutered the offense, but what the Lions did with Stafford isn’t the only way to do that. Early in his career Eli Manning played in a similar vertical offense as Winston has; a scheme change to shorter/quicker passes drastically dropped his interception rate. Will the Bucs incorporate more of these short YAC and QB-friendly concepts? Drags/mesh, slants, passes to the RBs, etc? Just mixing in ten or so of these a game should do wonders for Winston’s interception rate. There’s a big difference between a vertical explosive offense that is taught to read ‘touchdown to checkdown’ and an offense that looks to scheme vertical explosive plays that teaches you to read ‘find the open man’. Especially with a quarterback as aggressive as Winston.
And third, it’s that his interceptions come in bunches. In 2018, ten of his fourteen picks came in just four games. In 2017, ten of his eleven picks came in just four games (and six in just two). And in 2016, eleven of his eighteen picks came in just four games. Clearly, there’s a pattern here. So over the last three seasons 31 of his 43 interceptions (72 percent) came in just 12 games — out of 40. Meaning his other 12 interceptions were spread out over 28 games. Every interception has its own story. Many of the interceptions Winston has thrown haven’t been his fault. Most of them are. But clearly the issue isn’t interceptions in general, but actually his multi-interception “meltdown” games. He has about four a season. That must come way down.
You can scheme a lot of that away, and I believe having a defense with a pulse will also help, but a lot of it is just up to Winston and going out and executing the offense safely. And that’s where he’s going to earn his second contract. Or not. Regardless, we can be reasonably sure Winston will still throw a higher than average number of interceptions; somewhere between 10 and 20. That in itself isn’t an issue; it depends on how and when they were thrown. But being closer to ten than twenty, showing progress in limiting them coming in bunches to only one game next season, and throwing close to 30 touchdowns again will make a world of difference.