Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Taking the Jameis Winston risk assessment

TAMPA — "I'm a risk taker."

That's what Jameis Winston told Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer last month in a postgame conversation. It was a candid moment that sums up the Bucs' dilemma with their quarterback.

Coach Dirk Koetter laughed when he saw the exchange on HBO's Hard Knocks.

"Yeah, duh!" he said.

Winston has never met a play he didn't like, never attempted a throw he thought he couldn't make. Those attributes have served him well.

But for the Bucs, who open their season today against the Bears, managing the risk that comes with Winston likely will define not only this season but his career.

Koetter perfectly describes the emotional swings of coaching such a dynamic and hazardous passer:

"The very first pass of his career, he's a rookie. (Receiver) Adam (Humphries) is a rookie. We're backed up in our own end. Adam doesn't run a great route. Jameis is trying to make a play, and now we're down 6-0.

Sometimes it's okay to punt right there because we do have a terrific punter and an excellent punt coverage team.

"Then you fast-forward to Chicago last year and he scrambles 30 yards back in our own end zone, I'm holding my breath the whole time. He throws a bomb to Mike Evans. Now on the next play, he hits Freddie (Martino) for a touchdown. So, it's risk-reward."

How do the Bucs manage that? How much of Winston's competitive fire can rage before he burns down the house?

"I told him many, many times, in the NFL, the talent is too close," Koetter said. "You just can't afford to get two touchdowns down and try to make great comebacks every week. Can you do it once in a while? Sure."

The Winston benefit analysis goes like this:

• He's the only player in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons.

• He helped improve the Bucs from six wins in his 2015 rookie year to nine last season.

For every interception returned for a touchdown or egregious fumble, he has four or five other plays that might win the game.

The cost:

• His 50 touchdown passes have come against 41 turnovers — 33 interceptions and eight lost fumbles.

The player Winston most resembles, at least early in his career, is Packers Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. Steve Mariucci would know. He coached Winston in the Under Armour high school all-star game and was Favre's quarterbacks coach in his early years with the Packers.

He was watching this preseason when Winston threw a ball up for grabs in the end zone as he was being dragged to the turf at Jacksonville.

"I watched him when his butt was 7 inches from the ground and threw that ball up, and it was deja vu all over again," Mariucci said.

"Brett did that in Minnesota. He was being dragged down and shotput one up there to God only knows who.

"I almost sent Jameis a text saying, 'We could do without that one.' For every poor decision that loses you a game, he will make four or five unbelievable plays to win those games."

The No. 1 overall pick in 2015 out of Florida State is 32 games into his NFL career. Is this likely to change?

"No," Mariucci said.

"He'll learn when to go for it. But it's not going to change unless you do an intervention.

"When he's 57, he'll have the same competitive spirit."

The team has taken steps to manage the risk.

They surrounded Winston with better weapons this year. By signing receiver DeSean Jackson, the Bucs have a deep threat that will take some double teams off Evans. A year ago, Winston targeted Evans a league-high 173 times.

The Bucs also added tight end O.J. Howard and receiver Chris Godwin in the draft to go with Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries.

The defense also has improved under coordinator Mike Smith. To negate Winston's 18 interceptions and six lost fumbles last season, the Bucs' 29 takeaways ranked third in the NFL. That's a plus-5 on the Winston giveaway-takeaway ratio.

It should get better with the additions of defensive tackle Chris Baker and safety T.J. Ward.

The Bucs also have a punter who can swap field position in Bryan Anger. They were fifth in the league with a 44.1 yard net average last year, and Anger put 37 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

Remember another big number: 23.

That's Winston's age. He accepts coaching, and that should over time help him make better decisions with the ball.

"The biggest thing we've hammered with him is understanding field position and having down-and-distance awareness," quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian said. "I don't know if you can predict when he's going to improvise."

Winston said he has learned to resist some of his trigger-happy urges.

"Change is good at times. And I'm working on my patience," he said. "But you are who you are."

He might have found absolution in a quote shared with him by offensive lineman Ali Marpet from a Dr. Seuss book titled Happy Birthday to You!

" 'Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You,' " Winston said, quoting the book.

"And that really stuck with me because we're all our individual selves. And no one can be us more than us. It's so simple."

Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud.

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