You know how you feel about Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.
You know how you feel about Case Keenum, Ryan Tannehill and Blake Bortles.
But you don’t know, four seasons into his professional career, what to make of Jameis Winston.
All you know is that you don’t know.
It’s not that Winston’s a bad quarterback. But we can’t say he’s a good quarterback, either.
What he is, especially if you’re a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, is the most frustrating quarterback in the NFL.
His successes are spectacular. But so are his failures.
He makes plays that you swear no other quarterback can make. Like his Houdini act against the Bears in 2016. Or his 64-yard pass on the run against the Ravens last season.
He also makes plays that are so incomprehensibly and devastatingly bad that you wonder what’s happening between his ears. Like the fumble-six he lost in overtime against the Packers in 2017. Or the pick-six he threw against the Bengals last season.
Game box scores tell only part of Winston’s complicated story, so the Tampa Bay Times reviewed all 378 of Winston’s passes from the 2018 season as well as an assortment of advanced statistics. The takeaway: Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The game tape and numbers paint a clear picture of a talented but maddeningly inconsistent quarterback who might improve … or not.
Here is what we learned.
At first glance, Winston, 25, appears to be the same quarterback he was when he entered the NFL in 2015. His passer rating has been relatively stable. It rose from 84.2 in 2015 to 86.1 in 2016 to 92.2 in 2017 before dropping to 90.2 in 2018.
Though passer rating can give us a snapshot of a quarterback’s value, other measures can tell us more. One such measure is Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, or DVOA. Unlike passer rating, it takes into account down, distance, game situation and strength of opponent. In the DVOA formula, a completion during garbage time is less valuable than a completion late in a close game; in the passer rating formula, they’re exactly the same.
In 2018, Winston’s passing DVOA (which is expressed as a percentage, where a positive percentage indicates an above-average performance and a negative percentage indicates a below-average performance) fluctuated wildly from game to game. In Week 8 against the Bengals, he was benched after throwing four interceptions in three quarters. His DVOA: -81.2 percent, meaning he was 81.2 percent worse than an average quarterback. In Week 11 against the Giants, he came off the bench to lead the Bucs to four touchdowns in two quarters. His DVOA: 118.9 percent.
It’s not just that you don’t know which Winston you’ll get from one game to the next; you don’t know which Winston you’ll get from one play to the next. Take, for instance, his performance in Week 7 against the Browns. Late in the second quarter, he capitalized on a confused Cleveland defense and dropped a 29-yard pass to Mike Evans over a cornerback and in front of a safety.
On the next play, he underthrew O.J. Howard on a post route over the middle, resulting in an interception.
In which situation would you expect a quarterback to thrive: when a 280-pound defensive lineman is bearing down on him or when the offensive line gives him ample time to scan the field?
The answer, of course, is the latter. When a quarterback is under pressure, his passer rating drops roughly 35 points, according to Pro Football Focus.
Winston, though, thrives amid chaos. Like a young Ben Roethlisberger, he has a knack for buying time and extending plays. When under pressure last season, he completed 56.6 percent of his passes, threw five touchdowns to four interceptions and posted an 84.9 rating, according to Pro Football Focus. That rating ranked sixth among quarterbacks who dropped back to pass at least 200 times and was only seven points lower than his rating when throwing from a clean pocket.
A 28-yard touchdown pass in Week 12 against the 49ers was quintessential Winston: The pocket collapsed, he rolled to the right, kept his eyes downfield and threw across his body to Adam Humphries over the middle. Usually, that’s a no-no, but the 49ers defense lost track Humphries as it converged on Winston.
Though it’s an advantage to have a quarterback who can improvise when plays break down, such plays represent only a sliver of a quarterback’s overall performance. In Winston’s case, he was under pressure on a third of his dropbacks, a rate that was about league average.
Plus, performance when under pressure tends to be highly volatile. Why? Because no two plays are exactly alike. Performance in such situations isn’t as repeatable as situations in which the quarterback throws from a clean pocket.
The more stable and reliable measure when trying to forecast future performance is a quarterback’s passer rating when not under pressure. Winston’s rating on throws from a clean pocket in 2018 season was cause for at least mild concern. He struggled not only with accuracy but also with decision making. Over his first three seasons, his interception rate on throws from a clean pocket was 2.9 percent. In 2018, that jumped to 3.6 percent, dragging his passer rating when not under pressure to a career-low 92.0, which ranked 33rd. Put another way: From a clean pocket, Winston was no better than Brock Osweiler.
The flip side is that this is an area in which there’s room for growth — growth that’s feasible given that quarterbacks practice throwing from a clean pocket more often than they practice throwing while under pressure. One potential sign that Winston is on the verge of a breakthrough: In his first five games last season, he earned an 86.5 rating from a clean pocket (six touchdowns, seven interceptions); in his final six games, he earned a 96.9 rating (eight touchdowns, three interceptions).
DeSean Jackson and the deep ball
Winston and Jackson — a quarterback that loves to throw far and a receiver that loves to run fast. It was a marriage that should have worked, but they never clicked like the Bucs had hoped. The experiment officially ended last week when the Bucs traded Jackson to the Eagles for a booklet of Wendy’s Jr. Frosty coupons.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, from Winston’s three-game suspension to Jackson’s surly attitude, but as far as their inability to connect on the field, the numbers confirm what you saw live: Jackson was open, and Winston couldn’t hit him.
For his “Deep Ball Project” at brickwallblitz.com, NFL analyst Johnny Kinsley recently built a database of 35 quarterbacks and charted every one of their passes from last season that traveled at least 21 yards. He found that Winston was the least accurate deep ball thrower in the NFL. Only 10 of his 34 passes were accurate, including one of 10 to Jackson.
And here it is, the one and the only:
Winston had more success targeting Evans (half of his deep throws were accurate, according to Kinsley), so was something wrong with Jackson? Not in any way that we can measure. Jackson, 32, was as fast and as dangerous as ever. He gained an average of 2.7 yards of separation, which was consistent with 2016 (2.9) and 2017 (2.7). And defenses continued to fear him. They gave him an average cushion of 7.3 yards, which also was consistent with 2016 (7.2) and 2017 (7.4).
“A lot of what I saw was Jackson getting the short end of the stick from Winston,” Kinsley said. “Winston, for as much experience as he has in NFL, should have fairly easily gotten the ball into the range for Jackson so that he would have had a better chance to make a play.”
What about the offensive line? Did Winston have enough time? As it turns out, pass protection wasn’t an issue, either. Winston had a clean pocket on two-thirds of his deep pass dropbacks, and yet only five of those 23 throws were accurate, according to Kinsley.
Free-agent acquisition and 2015 first-round draft pick Breshad Perriman, who played in 10 games for the Browns last season, will replace Jackson as the Bucs’ top speed option. He caught all 16 catchable passes thrown to him in 2018, including four deep balls, according to Pro Football Focus. The thing is, if Winston struggled when not under pressure to connect with arguably the NFL’s best deep threat, how can we expect the results to be better with Perriman?
One of coach Bruce Arians’ first orders of business upon arriving in Tampa Bay was to announce that Winston was firmly entrenched as the Bucs’ starting quarterback. He argued that competition between Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick last season actually hurt both.
“I think sometimes, they were both looking over their shoulder,” he said. “One would do well for one week and then struggle, and then it was ‘Let’s put the other one back in.’ That is not me. If we have a guy, he’s our guy.”
There’s nothing wrong with a coach showing confidence in his quarterback, but the suggestion that Fitzpatrick’s presence hindered Winston is a curious one. The Bucs invested the first overall pick in 2015 in Winston hoping that he would develop into a franchise quarterback. A franchise quarterback doesn’t look over his shoulder in fear of a journeyman quarterback supplanting him.
Fitzpatrick certainly wasn’t worried about Winston.
“Especially with the quarterback position, it’s performance-based,” he said. “If you play well, you’re going to be out there. If you don’t, you’re not. I understand that part of it as well as everybody in the league does, probably.”
Wasn’t Winston’s ability to tune out distractions once a strength? He has had to manage significantly greater scrutiny before. Remember his Florida State career? In 2013, we learned that Winston was the subject of a sexual assault investigation. He went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead the Seminoles to a national championship that season.
But Fitzpatrick? He was too much to handle?
Regardless, it will be Winston’s team this season. He has yet to prove, however, that it should be.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.