TAMPA — Weapons for Winston.
It's a phrase we've heard for a couple of years now as the Bucs have tried to surround quarterback Jameis Winston with pass-catchers and playmakers.
And, in fact, the Bucs have done that. The group of receivers, led by Mike Evans, are among the best in football.
In that effort to give Winston some reliable hands to throw to, the Bucs made one of the biggest free-agent splashes in years when, before last season, they signed speedster DeSean Jackson to hefty three-year deal worth $35 million, including $20 million guaranteed.
At the time, there were some of us (ahem) who had reservations about the signing, mostly because Jackson apparently wore out his welcome in Philadelphia and was joining his third team in five years.
Would he be happy in Tampa Bay if he didn't get the ball? Would he be happy if the Bucs didn't win?
But it did seem like a risk worth taking considering the Bucs needed a deep threat and Jackson was one of the most explosive receivers in the game. Plus, he wanted to be here.
So, it was with good intentions that the Bucs signed Jackson.
Has Jackson been a bust? Well, you decide. He has played 25 games. His average game is three-to-four catches for about 57 yards. He has just seven touchdowns. Those cannot be the numbers he or the Bucs expected. Jackson's frustration simmered to a point where there were reports that, earlier this season, he asked for a trade, a story that Jackson hasn't refuted.
While no one is to really blame, Jackson and Winston, for whatever reason, have just never been able to get in sync. They've never found that special connection and probably never will. Jackson's status for the rest of this season is up in the air because of an injured thumb and it feels unlikely likely that he returns next season.
But this isn't about Jackson. Well, it is and it isn't. This is about Winston without Jackson. Maybe things are better for Winston if his weapons don't include Jackson.
It's too silly to say a quarterback can have too many weapons, but certainly the pressure to get everyone the ball is increased when you have an abundance of playmakers. Everyone wants the ball. Everyone asks for the ball. Everyone mopes when they don't get the ball.
Well, when Jackson is out, there's one less star to throw to.
You cannot deny that Winston has always had connections with Evans, wide receiver Adam Humphries and tight end Cam Brate. And now he has developed a nice rhythm with wide receiver Chris Godwin.
Okay, so this is only one game, but look at the last game Jackson played — the Bucs 27-9 victory against the 49ers. Winston targeted Jackson eight times and only connected on three for a mere 19 yards.
Look at his other favorite receivers that day: Evans (six of eight), Humphries (six of six), Godwin (four of four) and Brate (three of four).
Now, to be fair, two of the misses to Jackson were on deep routes. But that's sort of the point. Deep balls are not Winston's strong suit. In order for Jackson to be effective and happy, you have to throw deep balls to him. The problem is Winston and Jackson have never found consistent deep ball success and it feels as if they never will.
When it's all said and done, that's fine because now Winston is free to keep calling on his favorite targets. Because of that, the Bucs are having success. His options remain plentiful.
Evans is one of the league's top five receivers. Humphries is developing into Tampa Bay's version of Wes Welker. Brate has always been one of Winston's go-to guys. And now, Godwin is going from solid receiver to, someday perhaps, great receiver. In fact, Godwin's emergence will soften the blow if Jackson does not return.
Oh, don't forget about O.J. Howard, who also looks like he's going to be a big-time tight end.
In the end, it's too bad Jackson didn't pan out as planned. There aren't many players with that kind of special speed and game-altering skills. Maybe the Bucs should have done more to take full advantage of that rare kind of talent, although who knows what that would have been. Maybe his deep-ball threat does make things easier for Evans and the rest of the receivers.
You do get the feeling that there is really no one to blame for any of this.
General manager Jason Licht did the right thing by signing him. Winston tried to get Jackson the ball. Jackson tried to get open and catch it. Sometimes these things just don't work out.
In this case, however, it might not be the worst news ever. After all, weapons for Winston? The Bucs already have them.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones