TAMPA — Asked about his game-winning touchdown pass Sunday, Jameis Winston offered this description:
“By the grace of God.”
He’s not far off.
The touchdown was that improbable.
Trailing the Saints 24-23 with less than two minutes left, the Bucs began their drive at their own 5-yard line.
Here’s how many teams in the past decade have scored a touchdown in that situation to win the game:
The last team to do it was the Bears in 2007.
Or is it?
The Bucs won 31-24, but the game never should have come down to a last-minute 95-yard scoring drive. In this week’s Turning Point, we delve into why.
Winston came into the game holding the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career. He hadn’t thrown a pick since Dec. 10. Seventy-seven straight passes didn’t end up in the opponent’s hands.
That corner everyone talks about him turning — he was turning it. He was improving.
Until he wasn’t.
That’s Winston. Just when you think everything’s going to be all right, it’s not. He’s like Will Byers in Stranger Things. One moment, he’s having a great time at the arcade. The next, he’s in an alternate dimension and running from monsters.
Winston showcased his brand of horror Sunday by throwing three interceptions.
The first one wasn’t entirely his fault. Mike Evans stopped running during his crossing route, coach Dirk Koetter said.
On the second one, he underthrew a pass to running back Peyton Barber. “If he just gets (the ball) over that linebacker’s head, that is going to be a 40- or 50-yard gain,” Koetter said.
The third one, though, was a reckless throw to a triple-covered Evans. That’s the one that makes you start asking the big questions.
What if Winston isn’t a franchise quarterback? Why can’t the Bucs have nice things? Are the Bucs the Browns or — gasp! — are the Browns the Bucs?
“That was just not a good play by Jameis,” Koetter said. “That is the kind of stuff you can’t do.”
It was worse than that. Allow someone not employed by the Bucs to elaborate:
“Until these decisions get better by No. 3,” Fox analyst Chris Spielman said, “until he stops turning the ball over, Tampa Bay is destined for mediocrity.”
The Bucs were in field-goal range. Winston’s pick took three points off the board. If he takes care of the ball in that situation, Tampa Bay could have been lining up in the victory formation during the final two minutes instead of the shotgun formation.
It’s not that Winston doesn’t know how. Four plays before the interception, he didn’t see an open receiver, so he gave up and threw the ball into the ground. He lived to fight another down. On the next play, third and 2, he found a wide open Adam Humphries for a 43-yard gain.
It was the kind of decision where you’d turn to your friend and say, “Hey, maybe Winston’s turning a corner.”
After the interception, the Saints kicked a field goal to extend their lead to 17-13.
Special teams ace Josh Robinson bailed out the Bucs. Early in the fourth quarter, he forced a fumble on a Saints punt return that teammate Isaiah Johnson scooped up and carried into the end zone.
New Orleans scored a touchdown on its next drive to regain the lead. Tampa Bay countered with a field goal, setting the stage for a dramatic finish.
When the Bucs took possession at their own 5 with 1:58 left and no timeouts, they had a 15.7 percent chance of winning. In that situation, teams are at least twice as likely to turn the ball over as they are to score.
And Winston nearly did. On the first play.
Linebacker Craig Robertson read the quarterback’s eyes as he dropped back. When he targeted Humphries over the middle, Robertson broke for the ball and almost came away with interception No. 4.
Tampa Bay didn’t move until fourth and 10, when Winston completed a 12-yard pass to Cameron Brate. He then completed four of his next six passes to reach the New Orleans 39 with 15 seconds left.
The Bucs wanted to complete a quick pass and get out of bounds so that Patrick Murray could kick a field goal. Instead, Winston saw Chris Godwin one-on-one down the right sideline and went for it all.
Koetter said he wasn’t even looking at that side of the field.
“It was a double move, a slant-and-go,” he said. “When Jameis let that thing go to the other side I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ That play right there really signifies everything our season has been right there for it to end like that. With all of the close games we have been in, we were due, I guess.”
It signifies everything Winston is about, too. In any given sequence, he can look like one of the 10 worst quarterbacks and one of the 10 best.
What it means
Because the Bucs won, we’re talking about resilience, not failure. We’re talking about how Winston led a comeback, not how his poor play was the very reason Tampa Bay needed to come back.
Winston knows this. His first words in the news conference after the game:
“You know what this is a perfect example of? When you win, everything is good. When you lose, it’s always a problem.”
He was erratic all game. And while the Bucs were missing three of five starters along the offensive line, the line wasn’t to blame. Winston posted a 58.8 quarterback rating when he wasn’t under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Bucs have a quarterback who can overcome a three-interception game. There’s value in that.
But there’s more value in a quarterback who doesn’t throw three interceptions.
Quarterbacks threw three or more interceptions in a game 31 times this season. They lost 28 of those games. Winston and Matt Ryan (twice) were the only winners.
“Turnovers are the number one thing that get you beat, so (I am) very concerned,” Koetter said. “It’s rare that you can overturn a negative turnover ratio. It’s definitely something that has to be corrected, and that is one of the top things that would help us not be 3-7 in one-score games because they are hard to overcome when you don’t win the turnover (battle).”
We’re 45 games into Winston’s career. He threw two interceptions in his first game and three in his 45th.
The only thing we know about him is that we don’t know about him.
Is he a great quarterback? A bad one?
Here’s what he’s not, at least not yet: a franchise quarterback.
That’s a label that is earned. Anyone who identifies him as such is a wishful thinker.
Could he one day be? Yes. Just watch that game-winning pass to Godwin again.
Winston is due about $4 million next season, and soon Tampa Bay will have to decide whether to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. We’re not far away from deliberating an extension and an investment of tens of millions in guaranteed money.
As the Bucs head into the offseason, they have many needs. Add backup quarterback to the list.
Sunday’s win was exciting. Is it the start of something?
Until it isn’t.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.