What Jameis Winston can salvage from this Bucs season

The Bucs still have big decisions to make on Winston and coach Dirk Koetter. Clean games by the Bucs quarterback will certainly help.
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston passed his first test in his return to the starting job Sunday during Tampa Bay's 27-9 victory over San Francisco in Tampa. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston passed his first test in his return to the starting job Sunday during Tampa Bay's 27-9 victory over San Francisco in Tampa. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Nov. 27, 2018

TAMPA — It's one game. One game against one of the worst teams in the NFL.

One game doesn't prove Jameis Winston is suddenly listening to the better angel on his throwing shoulder. But the Bucs quarterback proved he is capable of protecting the football. He can play a clean game it he wants to. It doesn't prevent him from making enough plays to win.

So what if he does it again?

Winston may not win enough of the final five games to assure the Bucs (4-7) a postseason spot. But what if he rises to the challenge Sunday of beating a very good Carolina defense, or the week after against the Saints, or goes into Baltimore and upsets the Ravens?

This has sort of always been the riddle wrapped in the enigma of Winston.

He flashes that bright smile, promises he will get it fixed this time, then goes out and turns you into a believer again.

So why can't he just choose to play this way all the time?

"No player is going out there choosing not to play well,'' coach Dirk Koetter said Monday. "No one chooses that. Jameis made good decisions with the football (Sunday). Played a clean game. We had a good result. We win the turnover margin. We get two takeaways. We don't turn it over.

"That was a game where we only had six (explosive plays) on offense and we're tied in the lead in the NFL for explosives and we had maybe our lowest total in the year," Koetter added, referring to pass plays of 16 yards or more runs of at least 7 yards. " I thought Jameis did what needed to be done. He made the plays and made really good scrambles.''

Of course, the Bucs have seen this before.

Winston went on a pretty good run during the Bucs' five-game winning streak in 2016 during which he threw six touchdown passes and only three interceptions to breathe new life into what became a 9-7 season. At the time, he was throwing to Mike Evans, Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate but also was getting contributions from players like Freddie Martino and Cecil Shorts.

He was efficient, too, completing nearly 66 percent of his passes.

On Sunday, Winston was at his best when throwing on the move to his right in scramble plays that resulted in touchdowns to Brate and Humphries. Evans was a star, catching six of seven targets for 120 yards and a touchdown.

"They just kept getting open,'' Winston said. "All of our receivers had a great game.''

All but DeSean Jackson, who caught only three of eight passes thrown his way for 19 yards. Jackson, who entered the game with a thumb injury, will see a hand specialist in New York Tuesday, Koetter said.

"I thought he made really good decisions,'' Koetter said of Winston.  "He made decisive decisions. He didn't hold it too long and he didn't wait for plays to develop that might happen. As time went on, he took the sure thing when it was there and then Jameis also did an excellent job on scramble plays, making decisions outside the pocket whether to throw or run.''

In a weird way, if Winston cleans up the turnovers and the Bucs win, shouldn't this bode well for Koetter, too? After all, it proves his contention that the single biggest factor in the Bucs plight this season has been that his quarterbacks give the ball away.

The offense will finish as the best in franchise history, shattering marks for passing yards and total yards. The defense, even one that is historically bad, held a team to nine points by not having the offense put it in bad field position. The average drive start for the 49ers Sunday was their own 21-yard line.

So here the Bucs are at with Winston, on the corner of Franchise Quarterback and No. 1 Overall Bust.

There's not a lot of great options in 2019 for the Bucs.

They're willing enough to risk the $20.1-million fifth-year club option that is guaranteed only against injury to keep running Winston out there. That says something. Oregon's Justin Herbert, Missouri's Drew Lock and West Virginia's Will Grier may all go in the first round but none are considered can't miss NFL starters.

The best free agent may be Saints backup Teddy Bridgewater, but he hasn't started a game since 2015.

Even if it may be getting too late to save the jobs of Koetter and his coaching staff, Winston has time to make a very good argument for himself.

The Panthers are 1-5 on the road this season. The Bucs already have beaten the Saints in New Orleans. The Ravens have won two in a row behind Lamar Jackson at quarterback, but he's done it with his legs and not his arm.

There is a big game in Dallas two days before Christmas and the season finale at home against the Falcons, who may be playing for nothing at that point.

Winston? He has a lot to play for these last five games. One down, a career to go.

"There's always a lot to play for,'' Winston said. "We've always got to chase the dream, whether it's making it into the playoffs, whether it's one win at a time, we can never take anything for granted.''

Contact Rick Stroud  at Follow @NFLStroud