Examining Jameis Winston’s interceptions is like interpreting Rorschach inkblots. Everyone’s going to tell a different story.
In his four seasons in the NFL, Winston has thrown 58 picks. That’s either a lot or not all that many.
Buccaneers quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen’s take: “Your first four years, you throw a bunch of interceptions,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer recently.
That’s true for some quarterbacks. Vinny Testaverde (81), Peyton Manning (81) and Jake Plummer (80) threw a bunch. Bernie Kosar (33), Russell Wilson (34) and Tom Brady (38), however, did not.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (46) also threw fewer interceptions than Winston, “but they ran the ball in Atlanta, he went to a little bit better football team,” Christensen said.
Before it drafted Ryan in 2008, Atlanta was a mess actually. The Falcons’ franchise quarterback spent the 2007 season in prison, and their head coach quit on them. They did run the ball often, though — nearly 2,000 times from 2008 to 2011. Only the Jets and Ravens attempted more runs.
But that wasn’t why Ryan threw fewer interceptions.
He threw fewer interceptions because he was simply a better passer, as evidenced by, among other things, his interception rate. He threw a pick 2.3 percent of the time. Winston threw one 3.0 percent of the time.
Where does Winston’s interception rate rank among NFL quarterbacks, past and present? To find out, we built a list of players from the past 40 years who threw at least 1,000 passes during their first four seasons. That list features 86 quarterbacks, from Troy Aikman to Vince Young.
Among those 86, Winston ranks … 35th.
Thirty-fifth doesn’t seem so bad. That places Winston ahead of seven Hall of Famers. SEVEN! And they are: Dan Marino (3.3 percent, 46th), Brett Favre (3.4 percent, 50th), Jim Kelly (3.6 percent, 63rd), John Elway (3.7 percent, 68th), Kurt Warner (3.8 percent, 74th), Aikman (3.9 percent, 77th) and Warren Moon (4.6 percent, 84th).
Don’t start looking into arrangements for a trip to Canton just yet. Elway? Marino? Moon? Wasn’t that a completely different era? Weren’t they wearing leather helmets back then? Isn’t this a little like comparing Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) and Old Town Road?
It is. Those songs are nothing alike, and Old Town Road is excruciatingly awful. As for interception rates, the average rate in 1983, the year Elway and Marino made their debuts, was 4.4 percent. Quarterbacks today have cut that average in half, to 2.4 percent.
If only there were a way to compare quarterbacks across eras …
Actually, there is. And Pro Football Reference has already done the math for us.
The statistic? INT%+. What is it? The short explanation is that it measures a quarterback’s interception rate, compares it with the league average and puts it on a scale. The plus sign is merely a way to differentiate INT%+ from the conventional interception percentage. An INT%+ of 100 is league average. Anything greater than 100 is considered above average, and anything less than 100 is considered below average. (For the baseball sabermetricians out there, think OPS+ or wRC+).
Through this lens, it’s not a good look for Winston. Those seven Hall of Famers from a few paragraphs ago? They’re all ahead of him. Marino is 12th (111), Elway is 28th (106), Kelly is 33rd (105), Favre is 49th (100), Aikman is 60th (96), Moon is 64th (93) and Warner is 71st (91).
Winston? An INT%+ of 89 places him 75th, between Alex Smith and Ben Roethlisberger. Manning, despite throwing 23 more interceptions during his first four seasons, still comes out ahead of Winston. His INT%+ of 95 ranks 62nd, between Aikman and Moon.
Kosar (123), Joe Montana (121) and Ken O’Brien (118) top the list, and Derek Anderson (84), Plummer (79) and Testaverde (76) round out the bottom.
Winston’s low INT%+ doesn’t mean he’s a bad quarterback and that the Bucs are doomed. He matches up favorably with the quarterbacks in this sample in other similarly-adjusted categories, categories such as touchdown rate (near average), passer rating (near average) and yards per attempt (above average).
What his low INT%+ does mean, however, is that his accuracy and decision-making issues are real. Sometimes, sloppy mechanics are to blame. Sometimes, it’s his aggressive, never-say-die mentality. During spring workouts, Bucs coaches sought to clean up Winston’s alignment and footwork and emphasized patience, Christensen said on a recent Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast.
“We’ll keep teaching it,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but we can get there.”
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.