In Tampa Bay, spring and summer begin a little sooner than they do in most other parts of the country.
So, too, does another season: Speculation Season, or what I like to call Silly Season.
With your beloved Buccaneers playing out the stretch of yet another losing season, have at it. Dream, Tampa Bay, dream. Speak your wishes, no matter how far-fetched, into existence. Embrace the law of attraction. Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote a book about it. I think it was called Tweet, Pray, Love: A Football Fan’s Search for Everything Via Draft, Trade and Free Agency.
What’s that? University of Michigan coach and booger eater Jim Harbaugh is interested in returning to the NFL? Ooooooh. Intriguing.
The Glazers should reach out, right? I mean, sure, the nose-picking thing is weird, and his lack of accountability afterward is troubling. It’s not like we have to get Robert Mueller involved. Just don’t shake hands with the guy. You can nod or, if physical contact can’t be avoided, bump fists.
Moving on …
What’s that? The Ravens might part ways with Joe Flacco? Ooooooh. Intrig — Shhhhhh! SHHHHHHHHHHH!!!
That’s where I draw the line. Are you out of your mind? Flacco to Tampa Bay? There is such a thing as too much crazy.
How did all of this chatter get started anyway? Well, there was Jameis Winston, the Uber incident, a three-game suspension and a lawsuit settlement. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s reality: None of this talk gains traction if Winston isn’t in Scottsdale, Ariz., on March 13, 2016.
But he was, and because he was, some analysts, including NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, look at Tampa Bay’s quarterback situation as a quagmire. Brandt, who was the vice president of player personnel for the Cowboys for about 30 years, recently ranked the Bucs third among teams he thought Flacco could help the most. Brandt was not saying Flacco was likely to come here, just that he thought he could help.
“I don’t think this organization is happy with the quarterback position right now,” Brandt wrote. “Much depends on whether the Bucs keep coach Dirk Koetter — who really is a good offensive mind — or hire someone new. Winston will dazzle you from time to time, but Flacco is more consistently reliable, having posted a career interception rate (2.4 percent) that is almost a full percentage point lower than Winston’s (3.1 percent).”
Brandt’s right about the interceptions. Winston throws too many. He acknowledges that, and lately it seems he has recommitted himself to reducing the rate of them. Any comparison of the two quarterbacks, however, also should include touchdown rates. Since 2015, Winston has a greater than full percentage point edge there — 4.5 percent to 3.2 percent. That 4.5 percent mark isn’t great — it’s about league average — but 3.2 percent just isn’t good enough. It’s a sign that Flacco is playing too conservatively.
But “consistently reliable”? Flacco wasn’t good enough to keep his job in Baltimore. How would that guy help the Bucs? Spoiler: He wouldn’t. Source: I watch football.
Just to be sure, though, I checked the numbers. By about every measure in every season since 2015, Flacco has been a worse quarterback than Winston.
Are you a traditionalist who has a phobia of acronyms? Passer rating probably is the stat you’re most comfortable with. The edge there goes to Winston.
|Passer rating 2015||84.1||83.1|
|Passer rating 2016||86.1||83.5|
|Passer rating 2017||92.2||80.4|
|Passer rating 2018||85.3||84.2|
Prefer something a little more advanced but still simple? Adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A) is basically a souped-up version of yards per pass attempt (Y/A). It rewards quarterbacks for touchdowns and penalizes them for interceptions and sacks and is strongly correlated to wins. Winston has the edge there, too, in three of the past four seasons.
Study sabermetrics? Football Outsiders’ efficiency statistic — defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) — is one of the more all-encompassing metrics out there. It takes into account down and distance, situation and strength of opponent. DVOA, which is expressed as a percentage, represents the value a quarterback adds per play over an average quarterback. Again, Winston has the edge in three of the past four seasons.
“Yeah, Bass, but Flacco won a Super Bowl! Come on, man.”
Yep, he did. And he was awesome during that run — which was almost six years ago, by the way — passing for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Also: He has won one playoff game since.
What happened? Afterward, the Ravens gave Flacco a backloaded six-year, $120 million contract. Why they did it is the biggest Baltimore sports mystery since the disappearance of Ray Lewis’ white suit. The Ravens soon ran out of salary cap space, prompting a restructuring after a 5-11 finish in 2015.
This is precisely the predicament the Bucs want to avoid, and one they eventually will have to face if they keep Winston, whose salary jumps from $8 million to $21 million in 2019. That’s not an albatross, but it is $13 million that they no longer will have to spend elsewhere.
This isn’t to say the Bucs shouldn’t explore their options with Winston, whether that means taking a wait-and-see approach, negotiating an extension or gauging trade interest. If the goal is to win in 2019, though, Winston is the man, unless Tampa Bay can sign Thor from the Avengers movies, obviously.
Flacco only makes sense if you’re committed to moving Winston, stockpiling assets and need a stopgap veteran quarterback. Why else would you pay Flacco about the same amount of money to be worse than Winston? Then again, this is the Bucs we’re talking about. No team works harder to never be better than mediocre.
The Cowboys, the Bucs’ opponent Sunday, offer a lesson about NFL roster construction. In the 2016 draft, owner Jerry Jones so badly wanted quarterback Paxson Lynch that he almost paid a steep price to get back into the first round. In fact, afterward he talked about how much he regretted not doing it.
“When I look back on my life, I overpaid for my big successes every time,” Jones said. “And when I tried to get a bargain, get it a little cheaper or get a better deal on it, I ended up usually either getting it and not happy I got it. Or missing it.
“And I probably should have overpaid here.”
More than 100 picks later, the Cowboys settled for a lightly regarded quarterback out of Mississippi State: Dak Prescott. Prescott went on to become the offensive rookie of the year and lead Dallas to a 13-3 record. His base salary that season was $450,000.
Did the Cowboys get lucky? Absolutely.
Sometimes, though, the best moves are the ones you don’t make.
NFL standings: Tampa Bay edition
If the season ended today, the Bucs would have the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft. If you’re rooting for them to win Sunday … uh ... why? If you’re rooting for them to land a better draft pick, here are the teams you should root for in Week 16 (chances of landing a top-five pick in parentheses, courtesy of Football Outsiders):
• Cardinals (3-11, 99.6 percent) over Rams
• Raiders (3-11, 97.8 percent) over Broncos
• 49ers (4-10, 87.3 percent) over Bears
• Jets (4-10, 84.4 percent) over Packers (5-8-1, 1.4 percent)
• Jaguars (4-10, 39.4 percent) over Dolphins
• Lions (5-9, 35.1 percent) over Vikings
• Falcons (5-9, 25.7 percent) over Panthers
• Cowboys over Bucs (5-9, 20.9 percent)
• Bills (5-9, 7.0 percent) over Patriots
• Giants (5-9, 5.7 percent) over Colts
What to watch for
Jameis Winston: Much has been made of Winston’s ability to make plays when his pass protection breaks down. His 132.5 quarterback rating on passes outside the pocket is the best in the NFL. His rating on passes inside the pocket, however, is 79.4, the fourth worst.
“That’s just a part of my game, extending plays and making plays outside the pocket,” Winston said. “That’s a place where I can get better, in the pocket. … I think I’m a pretty good quarterback either way, inside the pocket or outside the pocket. I know I can get better at anything I do.”
That difference could be random, and eventually it might balance out. It also could be the result of poor offensive line play. Whatever the case is, it’s worth monitoring. It’s a red flag, whether or not Winston is primarily responsible.
Quarterback performance outside the pocket tends to be highly volatile, while performance inside the pocket tends to be more consistent season over season. Because of that, inside-the-pocket performance is a more reliable measure of a quarterback’s quality of play. If he can’t succeed inside the pocket, especially when the offensive line staves off pressure, how sustainable is success on plays outside the pocket?
Explosive pass plays: Over the first 12 weeks of the season, the Bucs offense was one of the most NFL’s most explosive. It averaged a league-high eight pass plays of at least 16 yards. Over Tampa Bay’s past two games, it has executed only seven total as opponents have prioritized taking away Winston’s deep ball.
“Just like we know that we’re an explosive team, teams are going to prepare against us and try to make us dink and dunk down the field,” Winston said.
Dallas has allowed 60 explosive pass plays, fifth fewest.
“(The Cowboys defense) is not complicated, but they do play awfully hard,” Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “Got a number of really good football players. Definitely our play clock in our head is going to have to be extended because they do play hard. They will finish. They will get after the quarterback in terms of their pass rush.”
Mike Evans: Evans needs 95 yards to break the team record for most receiving yards in a season, a mark that has stood for nearly three decades. Mark Carrier set the record in 1989 when he gained 1,422.
Evans has had seven 100-yard games this season (only Julio Jones and Adam Thielen have had more, with nine each) and 20 in his career, which is a team record, and it’s not even close. Vincent Jackson had 13 100-yard games from 2012 through 2015.
The Cowboys offense is loaded with talent, but the play-calling has limited its explosive potential. One way to overcome the play-calling? Ignore it. That’s what Amari Cooper, who came to Dallas via a midseason trade, did to score a late 75-yard touchdown against the Eagles a couple of weeks ago. Guess here is that the Cowboys become the second team in three weeks to clinch a division title by beating the Bucs. The pick: Cowboys 27, Bucs 21.
Statistics in this report are from ESPN, Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.