Seven games into his pro career, Jameis Winston has emerged as a legitimate candidate for NFL rookie of the year.
That was unthinkable after he threw two interceptions, including a pick six on his first pass, in a disastrous debut against the Tennessee Titans, the ugliness of which was only amplified by Marcus Mariota's near-perfect performance.
Of course the Internet overreacted, declaring that the Buccaneers had made a mistake that they would regret forever and ever and ever. The Titans' 42-14 smackdown was proof. Case closed.
But both quarterbacks played more games, and a new truth has emerged: Winston has been better since — and better overall. This doesn't mean he will continue to be the better quarterback; it'd be just as silly to make that prediction based on seven games as it would be to make it based on one. It's still early.
Winston has been especially strong over his past three games, two of which the Bucs won and one of which they were on the wrong end of "You like that?!" In those games, he completed 64.9 percent of his passes, averaged 8.9 yards per attempt and threw four touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Bucs' failure to find a franchise quarterback is as much a part of their identity as a skull and cross swords. Steve Young, Vinny Testaverde, Trent Dilfer, Josh Freeman — no Bucs rookie quarterback ever put together a streak of three games of at least one touchdown pass and no interceptions. Winston has. Across the league, only Kansas City's Alex Smith and Indianapolis' Matt Hasselbeck have built longer active streaks (four games).
Winston wasn't flawless in the Bucs' 23-20 win over the Falcons; his 55.2 completion percentage (16/29) was his third-lowest mark of the season and his 6.1 yards per attempt was his lowest. While he skipped a potentially game-ending pass to Adam Humphries in overtime, he came through in other crucial situations.
Here's one: After linebacker Kwon Alexander picked off Matt Ryan with 1:28 left in the second quarter, Winston hit Mike Evans on a third-and-14 and then tight end Cameron Brate deep over the middle for a 20-yard touchdown that extended the Bucs' lead to 13-3.
And when the Falcons rallied from a 17-point deficit to force overtime, Winston did not crumble and led a 15-play, 68-yard drive that resulted in what turned out to be a game-winning field goal by Connor Barth. On the possession, he converted three third downs (the Bucs converted six all game), including a third-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 31-yard line. The Falcons sent five rushers on the play, but the Bucs were able to keep them at bay because three players (Humphries, tight end Brandon Myers and running back Charles Sims) initially stayed back to block. With time, Winston was able to find Evans against the zone coverage and pick up 14 yards.
To win rookie of the year, Winston will have to beat out two very strong competitors in Oakland's Amari Cooper and St. Louis' Todd Gurley. Cooper leads all rookie receivers in catches (38), yards (565) and touchdowns (three). Gurley leads all rookie running backs in yards (575), yards per carry (6.1) and runs of 20 or more yards (seven).
Seven quarterbacks have won the offensive rookie of the year award since it was first handed out in 1967. Six of them have been first overall picks, the last being Carolina's Cam Newton. If Winston continues playing at his current pace, his stat line (58.6 completion percentage, 3,767 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions) will compare quite favorably to Newton and another recent quarterback to win the award, Sam Bradford. Robert Griffin III, the 2012 winner, is in a class by himself.
|Player, team (season)||Comp %||Passing yds||TD/INT||QB rating||QBR||DVOA|
|*Sam Bradford, St. Louis (2010)||60.0||3,512||18/15||76.5||37.4||-15.6%|
|*Cam Newton, Carolina (2011)||60.0||4,051||21/17||84.5||56.2||0.8%|
|Robert Griffin III, Washington (2012)||65.6||3,200||20/5||102.4||75.6||16.6%|
|*Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay (2015)||58.6||3,767||23/16||85.6||58.7||-2.6%|
|*First overall pick
Note: Winston's statistics are projections
Source: NFL, ESPN, Football Outsiders
Meanwhile, the Titans have fallen apart since the season opener and have lost six in a row. Mariota sat out the past two because of an MCL sprain but might return to play the New Orleans Saints Sunday. Coach Ken Whisenhunt, however, won't be there. The Titans fired him Tuesday less than two years into his tenure. On the surface, it seems like a rash decision and has spurred speculation that Whisenhunt's handling of the injury hastened his ouster. A 1-4 record, an injury and a coaching change — not an optimal start for Mariota.
If Mariota has missed time, why bother continuing to compare him with Winston? To troll Titans and Oregon fans, obviously. Or … because that's what we've been doing since Week 1.
Before Sunday, Winston had targeted Brate twice all season. He caught both passes, one for 7 yards against the Panthers in Week 4 and the other for 6 yards against Washington in Week 7. Against the Falcons in the second quarter, Winston targeted him twice more, both times deep.
On passes of 20 or more yards, Mariota has just as many completions (three) as interceptions.
Winston's passer rating actually ticked down this week, from 85.7 to 85.6. The first eight weeks of Winston's rookie season looks most like Newton's, according to our database of quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1980. Even though Mariota's rating has declined after each game he has played, he holds a 7.6-point advantage.
The problem with quarterback rating: It doesn't adjust for situation and treats all completions the same. A 5-yard completion on third-and-15 is no different from a 5-yard completion on third-and-5. Therefore, we've also tracked two other metrics this season that attempt to improve upon traditional measures of quarterback performance.
Total Quarterback Rating (QBR)
ESPN's QBR rates quarterbacks on a 0-100 scale. After the season opener, 90 points separated Mariota and Winston. Slowly, Winston closed the gap and finally passed Mariota last week. Now, Winston ranks 19th out of 32 quarterbacks, while Mariota ranks 28th. Arizona's Carson Palmer leads the NFL with an 84.8 QBR; at 29.6, Philadelphia's Sam Bradford has the lowest.
Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA)
Football Outsiders' DVOA measures a quarterback's value on a per play basis relative to the league average. The formula factors in down, distance and situation. Throughout the season, the formula also adjusts for strength of opponent, which QBR does not do. A positive percentage indicates an above-average player and a negative percentage indicates a below-average player. Winston's DVOA (16th out of 32 quarterbacks) has increased after each of his past three games, and Mariota's (29th) has decreased after each of his past four games. Palmer (40.4 percent) also ranks first in DVOA; Ryan Mallett (minus-25.3 percent), who beat the Bucs in Week 3, ranks last. The Houston Texans released Mallett last week.
Thomas Bassinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.