For the first two weeks of the season, Ryan Fitzpatrick was the face of the NFL.
He had thrown four touchdown passes and gained 400 yards in back-to-back games, leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to unlikely wins over the NFC South champion Saints and Super Bowl champion Eagles.
To some, it was magic.
To others, there was no such thing. It was the play-calling, the offensive line and the receivers. Jameis Winston, if he had been there, would have done it, too.
Well, we’re about to find out.
While Fitzpatrick was, for a fleeting moment, the face of the NFL, he was never the face of the Bucs. For better or worse, that was and is Winston, the team’s first overall draft pick in 2015. On Sunday, the quarterback will start a game for the first time since serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy.
Chances are that this will be his best season yet. Here are some reasons why:
1. Off-field issues won’t affect Winston’s onfield performance
Sadly, there’s a series of events that support such a claim.
• In 2013, Winston, amid sexual assault allegations, led Florida State to an undefeated season and a national championship.
• On Oct. 11, 2014, the day after Florida State notified Winston that it was investigating him for multiple violations of the student code of conduct, he completed 30 of 36 passes, gained 317 yards and threw for three touchdowns in a 38-20 win over Syracuse. “When we get on the field, that’s a sanctuary,” he said after the game. He and the Seminoles went on to reach the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.
• As a civil suit against Winston worked its way through the court system in 2015 and 2016, he became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to gain 4,000 passing yards in each of his first two seasons. In 2016, he set the Bucs record for touchdown passes in a single season (28) and led the team to its best finish (9-7) in six seasons.
2. This is shaping up to be the greatest passing season in NFL history
It seems that teams finally are realizing how much sense it makes to pass. Through five weeks, 60.6 percent of plays have been passes (or sacks) and 39.4 percent have been runs. If this trend holds, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t, it will set an NFL record. As for the Bucs, they’re more pass-happy than average. They’re dropping back 63.5 percent of the time and handing off 36.5 percent of the time.
Week 4 was one of the greatest passing weeks in NFL history, in terms of volume and efficiency. The team averages: nearly 40 passes, more than 300 passing yards, about 8 yards per pass and two touchdowns. After proving last season that he is at least a league-average quarterback, Winston should be able to regularly hit those marks.
Using the data from Week 4, we can construct a reasonable baseline for Winston of 3,600 yards and 24 touchdowns in 12 games. And considering the Bucs' success through the air so far this season, 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns aren’t out of the question.
3. Winston has played better than you think
The 18-27 career record, as well as the 3-10 record last season, doesn’t signal “quarterback on the rise.” Winston’s sometimes reckless decision making is partly to blame for that, but so are the NFL’s worst defense and one of the worst special teams units. The Bucs did, after all, lose both games last season in which Winston posted a quarterback rating of 120. (Before 2017, Tampa Bay had won 32 of 35 games in which its quarterbacks posted a rating of at least 120.)
If we dive deeper into Winston’s 2017, however, we find that he had his most efficient season yet. He completed 63.8 percent of his passes and averaged 7.9 yards per attempt, both of which were career highs. Football Outsiders rated him as 14.3 percent above league average on a per-play basis.
Given the historic offensive output across the NFL right now, however, it might be difficult to gauge whether Winston is truly having a breakout season or is just keeping pace. The average quarterback rating today is 93.4; 30 years ago it was 72.9. The average completion percentage today is 65.0; 30 years ago it was 53.4.
Take, for example, Giants quarterback Eli Manning. He’s completing more than 70 percent of his passes. It seems impressive, but many of those completions haven’t been all that valuable. A third of the Giants passes have resulted in a first down, which is below the league average. The Rams (47.4), Bucs (44.0), Chargers (41.4), Chiefs (40.7) and Saints (40.0) lead the NFL in percentage of throws that result in a first down. Incidentally, they’re among the frontrunners for playoff spots.
Winston’s quarterback rating and completion percentage might very well tick up this season, but the more meaningful measure of his value to the offense will be the percentage of his passes that result in a first down. That’s the object, isn’t it? Not only to complete the pass but also to gain a first down? Winston led the league in that category last season (40.7 percent), besting some names you might have heard of — Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. If Winston sustains that rate, he’ll have a solid 2018 campaign and could very well find himself among the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks.
And if the defense and special teams ever come around? Then we’ll have something special.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.