Jameis Winston played one of the best games of his career Sunday against the 49ers.
But how good was it? And what does it mean?
Let’s start with the first question. Most people would say that Winston’s five-touchdown performance against the Eagles in 2015 was his best game. His performance Sunday, though, was a close second.
To answer this question more definitively, we can do better than the eye test. There are several ways to measure the quality of Winston’s performance against the 49ers. The one I’m NOT going to seriously consider is passer rating. Its flawed and outdated formula gives a disproportionate amount of weight to completion percentage and doesn’t factor in situation or strength of opponent.
One alternative is Total Quarterback Rating, or QBR, ESPN’s proprietary measure of quarterback performance. QBR is an efficiency statistic that considers all of a quarterback’s contributions — his passes, runs, turnovers and penalties — as well as his situational play. For example, a quarterback will receive less credit for accumulating yards and touchdowns in garbage time.
By QBR, the 49ers game was the third-best start of Winston’s career, falling just short of matching the Eagles game and the 2016 opener against the Falcons.
|Nov. 22, 2015||Eagles||19/29, 246 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT||93.8|
|Sept. 11, 2016||Falcons||23/32, 281 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT||91.2|
|Nov. 25, 2018||49ers||29/38, 312 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT||91.0|
|Nov. 1, 2015||Falcons||16/29, 177 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT||88.5|
|Oct. 22, 2017||Bills||32/44, 384 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT||87.7|
But what good is efficiency if it doesn’t result in points? Fair enough. There’s a way determine the points a player helps produce. To do so, we have to tweak the way we think about a football field. Instead of seeing it as a simple plane that is 100 yards long from end zone to end zone, look at each yard line as having a point value that fluctuates based on down and distance. This concept is called “expected points.” It’s not some new-fangled advanced stat. It has been around three decades, introduced in the 1988 book The Hidden Game of Football.
Here’s an example: The value of a second-and-goal play from the 6-yard line — the situation the Bucs faced halfway through the first quarter Sunday — is 4.95 expected points. When Winston threw a touchdown pass to Cameron Brate, the play ultimately produced seven points, adding 2.05 points over expectation.
As measured by expected points, all but two of Winston’s 29 completions were positive plays. In other words, almost every pass he completed Sunday increased the likelihood of the Bucs scoring points.
Winston’s passes were by far the most influential factor in Tampa Bay’s 18-point margin of victory. In total, they were worth 19.58 points, helping the Bucs overcome the negative plays produced by their run offense and their run defense.
Winston’s passes have produced more points just once: the 2015 Eagles game. They were worth 20.43 points. The 2017 Bills game comes close; Winston’s passes were worth 19.26 points.
Without question, the 49ers game was one of the three best of Winston’s career. The meaning of that is harder to determine.
The temptation is to look at it and argue or hope that it was a turning point. Maybe it was. Or maybe it was nothing more than a good game against a bad team.
If we get caught up in trying to assess whether the game was a turning point, though, we risk missing the most important takeaway from this exercise. That takeaway: The game was a great game for Winston and the Bucs, but it wasn’t an all-time great game. And four seasons into Winston’s career, such performances have been rare, occurring about once a season.
The word we’ve heard most often this week in evaluations of Winston’s performance is “decisive.” After watching the coaches film, I’m not sure that’s the best description. I didn’t see Winston making quicker decisions. In fact, he held the ball longer than usual. It didn’t matter how quickly he attempted passes, though; the offense’s success rate was about the same.
I saw Winston making better decisions and taking fewer risks, especially when under pressure. In those situations, he completed 10 of 15 passes for 172 yards, including his two touchdown passes, the one to Brate in the first quarter ...
... and the one to Adam Humphries in the fourth quarter.
I’d even argue the lone sack Winston took wasn’t a bad decision. On that play, he ramped up to throw a deep ball to either Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, but with both well-covered, he held the ball rather than risk an interception near midfield.
That doesn’t mean Winston suddenly became a checkdown game manager. His pass distribution Sunday was consistent with his season-long patterns. He threw about half of his passes between the numbers, and about half of his passes traveled no farther than 9 yards. He attempted four deep passes (passes that travel at least 20 yards), completing one to Evans for 42 yards. His deep-pass attempt rate (11 percent) and completion percentage (25 percent) were typical as well. The difference Sunday was that Winston was virtually flawless on the short passes, completing all 20 for 137 yards.
Winston did target Jackson deep twice, but both passes fell incomplete. Jackson dropped the first attempt (possibly because he braced for a hit) …
… and Winston overthrew him on the second. Better to overthrow him, I suppose, than to underthrow him, at least in this case.
Overall, Sunday was a positive step. Again, however, we should be cautious about arguing that it signals some kind of arrival. Quarterback performance under pressure is notoriously volatile. It’s not unusual to watch a quarterback excel one game and crumble the next. Much of Winston’s success Sunday came when plays broke down because of poor pass blocking — particularly on the right side of the offensive line — forcing him and his receivers to improvise. That’s what playmakers do. At the same time, those are awfully difficult circumstances to replicate.
Statistics in this report are from Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.