TAMPA — No team causes mood swings quite like the resilient yet self-destructive Bucs.
They’re exciting. They’re exasperating. They inspire hope. They trigger despair.
In that way, Jameis Winston really is the face of the franchise.
A week ago, he turned the ball over three times. In Monday’s 24-21 loss to the Falcons, he didn’t turn it over a single time.
In this week’s Turning Point, we dive deeper into his performance.
On Sunday afternoon, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport lost power, causing more than 1,000 flight cancellations. Officially, a fire at an underground electrical facility caused the outage. Unofficially, this was the Bucs’ plan to stop Julio Jones from getting to Tampa.
Georgia Power restored electricity late Sunday night, foiling the scheme. So the Bucs fell back on Plan B: the rare decuple coverage.
Allow Dirk Koetter to translate:
“Yeah, we had 10 guys on him.”
Bold move, coach. Jones caught only three passes for 54 yards.
Otherwise, the first half unfolded like every first half this season. Atlanta scored on three of its five possessions. Tampa Bay scored on one of its five and went into halftime trailing 17-7.
In the second quarter, the Bucs staged one of the most Bucs sequences ever.
• Winston completed a 32-yard pass to Mike Evans. An offensive pass interference penalty on Evans negated the play.
• Winston completed another 32-yard pass, this time to running back Charles Sims. The Falcons challenged the play, and replay showed that Sims’ knee touched the ground a yard behind the line of scrimmage. A late hit penalty, however, spared Tampa Bay a third and 18 and gave the offense a fresh set of downs.
• On a third and 4 later in the drive, the injury-depleted Bucs came to the line looking like a unit that was finishing out a preseason game. Practice-squad-to-active-roster yo-yo Alan Cross split out wide left. Winston targeted him about 20 yards downfield, dropping a touch pass over the linebacker that Cross caught as he was falling to the ground.
• On the next play, Winston targeted another backup tight end. Antony Auclair’s 14-yard gain put Tampa Bay inside the red zone.
• With the Bucs on the verge of scoring a game-tying touchdown, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden took note of their resilience. “This is good work by Tampa Bay, showing a lot of grit and character against the defending NFC champions.”
• Then running back Peyton Barber lost a fumble inside the 10-yard line. Gruden: “The self-destruction of this Buccaneer offense has nothing to do with coaching. You’ve gotta protect the football!”
• Atlanta capitalized on the turnover by scoring a field goal. But not just any field goal. A 57-yard field goal. By Matt Bryant. The Matt Bryant whom Tampa Bay cut in 2010.
On a first and 10 halfway through the third quarter, Winston sidestepped a Falcons blitz and completed a pass we haven’t seen him complete in a long time — a deep ball to Evans. The 42-yard touchdown pass cut Tampa Bay’s deficit to three points.
That was Winston’s first 40-yard pass to Evans this season. It was his third pass to Evans of more than 20 yards; they had 15 such connections last season.
In a broad sense, the Bucs stuck to their 2017 script. Act I: Fall behind in the first half. Act II: Rally in the second half. Act III: Fall short.
But the difference between 4-10 and 5-9 is not what matters most today. Yes, some players that are here now will be gone next season. That also might be true for some coaches and executives.
What matters above all else over the next two games and into next season is whether Winston is developing into the quarterback the Bucs hoped he would be when they drafted him first overall in 2015.
Winston’s performance Monday night was his best of the season and one of the best of his career. Among the things that stood out:
• He excelled under constant pressure. Down to backups at center, right guard and right tackle, the offensive line allowed 15 pressures. When hurried, Winston completed 8 of 11 passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns, good enough for a 145.5 passer rating. By that measure, he was twice as good as usual.
• He expertly executed play-action passes. Tampa Bay’s offense operates best when games are close and defenses are forced to honor run fakes. Entering Week 15, the Bucs were averaging 8.6 yards per play-action pass, the league’s eighth-best average. Winston topped that Monday night, completing 7 of 8 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns. The lone incompletion was on target, but tight end Cameron Brate dropped it.
• He consistently completed throws outside the numbers. Winston completed 14 of 17 such passes for 195 yards. All three of his touchdown passes — to O.J. Howard for 30 yards, to Evans for 42 yards and to Adam Humphries for 16 yards — were outside the numbers.
• He had success throwing down the field. On passes that traveled at least 10 yards, Winston was 11-of-18 for 184 yards.
What it means
The Bucs have lost at least 10 games for the 25th time in their 42 seasons.
This, however, was not a typical loss.
Tampa Bay could have quit after that second-quarter sequence. Or after Devonta Freeman’s 32-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter pushed Atlanta’s lead back to 10 points. Or after (name a player — seriously, any player) left the game because of an injury.
More than a game was on the line, and the Bucs competed until the end.
As for Winston, we’ve seen him lose winnable games. That was not the case Monday night. He almost salvaged a game that was a near-certain loss against a playoff-bound team.
He moved well in the pocket despite pressure, he hit players in stride and, aside from a fumble late in the second quarter that teammate Caleb Benenoch recovered, he took care of the ball.
Winston’s job might not have been on the line, but it’s not as secure as it was at the beginning of the season. He needed to flash his potential — if not for his sake, then for his coach’s.
“The best quarterbacks make other players around them better,” Koetter said recently.
On Monday, Winston took a step in that direction.
Statistics in this report are from Pro Football Focus. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.