TAMPA — Bucs coach Bruce Arians has a plan. Mr. Fix It believes he can stop the leaks and plug the holes in the game of quarterback Jameis Winston.
Specifically, he says the turnovers must slow to a trickle. But it will only be accomplished by Arians tightening the screws and demanding more.
“I talked to Jameis this morning about it and said, ‘You and I are going to have hard conversations about our football team,’’’ Arians said from his office at the Bucs’ AdventHealth Training Center just days before Super Bowl LIII. “’You’re not a rookie. So when I come to you, I want honest answers.’ We had those conversations earlier today.’’
Of course, Winston has been coached hard before. It’s not like Lovie Smith or Dirk Koetter turned a blind eye to his 58 interceptions and 18 lost fumbles over the past four seasons, the second-most in the NFL during that span.
However, while Arians does not forgive those mistakes, he’s also not holding Winston solely responsible for them.
Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen began the process of watching every throw, every decision Winston made with the football over the past four seasons. In addition to bad decisions, there have been some poor mechanics as well.
“I’ve studied a bunch of them,’’ Arians said. “Clyde has watched every throw he’s made since his rookie year and Byron, too. And it’s like you’re trying to look safeties off too long and your feet are crossed. So much of it is mechanical.’’
Then Arians began to pull back on Winston, saying much of the blame for his turnovers were the product of directly a poor football team.
Too often, Arians said, the Bucs’ defense surrendered a big lead and the running game, either ineffective or abandoned, forced Winston into a position of having to put the entire offense on his shoulders.
“The other thing is they’re down (expletive) 21 points,’’ Arians said after watching the Bucs games over the past four seasons. “Anybody down 21 is going to throw a pick or two and he’s down 21 a bunch.
“You’re going to throw picks. Tipped balls. Bad balls. Hit throwing. Being Superman. You think you can make everything.
“Give him a running game. Give him a defense and see how good he can be. I think we can limit (turnovers). Never get rid of them. There’s nobody that ever does it. But you can limit turnovers. And you talk about it. You talk a bunch about it on the practice field. That’s when it gets ugly. ‘What the (expletive) was that?’"
Arians is right. In Winston’s rookie year, Doug Martin rushed for 1,402 yards. Since then, the Bucs have not had a 1,000-yard rusher.
Meanwhile, the Bucs defense has never ranked higher than 15th in points allowed. The other three seasons, they were 22nd, 26th and 31st.
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That’s why Arians has enlisted the help of former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, his former defensive coordinator with the Cardinals.
Arians has said he wasn’t ‘pining,’ to get back into coaching during his first year of retirement. But the Bucs opportunity included a rare confluence of events that made it irresistible: He had a previous working relationship with general manager Jason Licht, most of his former assistants were available and he loved Winston as his quarterback.
Arians said he’s anxious to see what Christensen and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich can do to improve Winston.
“I like to call it the driving range, taking him to the range,’’ Arians said. “Clyde is one of the best and we go to the range 30 minutes a day, just footwork and drills and throwing off balance and making these throws. You don’t get to stand there and throw it (overhand) perfectly all the time.
“One of the great feelings as a coach is when you do a drill and you see it in the game. That’s exactly what we practiced last Wednesday and the guy can do it now. That’s coaching.’’
Arians, 66, has a long history of success with mentoring some of the game’s best quarterbacks, a list that includes Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer.
He said he learned from Bear Bryant to “coach them hard and hug them later.’’
“If it’s not perfect, it needs to be fixed and don’t take it as criticism, take it as coaching,’’ Arians said. “I’m not talking about you personally. I’m talking about your football and your football sucks right now. That’s what I say to all the players.’’
To say Winston is excited about the hiring of Arians would be an understatement. He has said that once Koetter was fired, his first choice for the Bucs coach was Arians. He believes the fact that Leftwich played quarterback for nine seasons in the NFL will be an added asset.
One thing is certain: the swag is back for Winston. NFL teams are often a reflection of their head coach, and Arians doesn’t lack for confidence. In fact, his teams feed off that.
It’s not a coincidence that Arians quickly announced that Winston was the Bucs quarterback and the Bucs were Winston’s team.
A year ago, Winston was suspended three games, started three and was benched for three more before finishing the season under center.
After his benching, maybe for the first time in his life for something other than discipline, Winston threw 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions in the final six games of 2018.
Arians says the way Winston has responded is proof that his belief in the Bucs quarterback will be rewarded.
“It can scare you to where you can’t recover or it can grit your teeth make you say, 'I’ll show you,’’’ Arians said. “And I see the gritted teeth right now. He knows, that’s why I said it publicly right at the start, it’s his team. I believe in this guy. Byron believes in this guy. Clyde believes in this guy. The whole coaching staff believes in this team.
“He’s smart. He loves ball. He’s here. He’s got all the talent in the world, so why can’t he be successful?’’