TAMPA — Jameis Winston’s arm has plenty of power, but it hasn’t always practiced much patience.
The Bucs quarterback likes to drive the football down field and fit it into tight windows. That all-or-nothing style may seem to fit with Bruce Arians’ mantra of “no risk it, no biscuit.” But what Winston is learning in Year 5 is that sometimes the best pass he can make is the shortest one.
Arians has always gotten his running backs heavily involved in the passing game, which enables it to be as efficient as it is dominant.
“Sometimes checking that ball down is the simple decision,” Winston said. “It’s about moving the chains. It’s about a completion here and a completion there. And that’s how you know the game really slows down is when you’re able to do that, when it’s just second nature.”
Is that hard for a gunslinger like Winston, who has thrown 58 interceptions in 56 career games?
“It’s not hard. It’s challenging at times because in terms of just wanting to make a play,” Winston said. “But that’s part of growth at the quarterback position and part of the awareness of knowing when the defense did a great job. How can we protect us?”
Most of the time that may mean checking the football down to running backs. But last season, for example, Peyton Barber led all Bucs running backs with only 20 receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown. By comparison, running back David Johnson caught 80 passes for 879 yards and four touchdowns for the Cardinals under Arians in 2016. Bucs running back Andre Ellington caught 49 passes for the Cardinals in 2014.
“It’s important because it allows us to continue to keep drives alive,” Ellington said. “We’re not punting the ball every four downs. It’ allows us to execute on third down, and just lets us move the chains. We have a great defense, but any time we can get the offense to stay on the field it will give us our best chance to score points.”
Statistically, Winston has improved each season in categories such as completion percentage, average yard per attempt, yards per game and passer rating.
In other words, he has all the physical tools necessary to succeed at quarterback in the NFL. What he needs is simply to be willing to take what the defense is giving him.
“It ain’t always a money throw for me," Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “It’s a money decision. And that’s what that position is all about. Everybody wants to see the big 40-yard posts. Trust me, that’s there. But that’s not what we’re going to ask Jameis to do every snap. What we’re going to ask Jameis to do is put us in the right position. Make the right decision more than not.”
Helping Winston is that the Bucs return a solid core of receivers, some who have been with him since Tampa Bay drafted him No. 1 overall in 2015. It’s hard to imagine many passing combinations as productive as Winston to Mike Evans, who has been as consistent as any receiver in the NFL as one of only three players with five consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
“My goal is to get better every year and statistically that has happened in a lot of different things," Winston said. "And Year 5 is another year I have to get better and it really doesn’t hurt when you’ve got four years under your belt with Mike Evans and you’re about to have three years under your belt with Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard and you’ve got four years under your belt with Cam Brate. That camaraderie helps you. A lot of football teams don’t get that.''
But in many ways, Arians’ offense invites pressure. Teams know he likes to empty the backfield and they counter with an array of blitzes.
Hang onto the football too long and you may get it down the field. But the quarterback can also expect to take a beating with free rushers.
One play in the first week of training camp excited Leftwich more than any of the others. The Bucs had an unaccounted for pass rusher steaming off the edge during Winston’s drop. But he held onto the ball until the running back came open in the flat and he side-armed a pass to him that was about a 20-30 yard play.
“That play he probably only threw a four-yard pass," Leftwich said. "But that was the right decision because that’s what we’re asking him to do. That’s hard for us to do as quarterbacks right? You know, we want to throw the ball down the field. I’ve been there.
“But what the defense did and who they covered, that ball was supposed to go right there. That was the best decision, the best play he made in camp that day."