That’s the question that has been hanging over every Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice, every snap, every pass this summer.
As Jameis Winston enters his fifth season — the final year of his rookie contract — we’re looking for signs, signs that Winston will become the franchise quarterback the Bucs have told us that he is and have tried to make him be.
We’ve seen signs before, like Winston’s five-touchdown game against the Eagles in 2015. Or his four-touchdown game against the Falcons in the 2016 opener. Or his nearly flawless performance against the 49ers last season.
And each time, we’ve wondered: Is this the turning point? Is this when it all clicks?
And each time, the answer has been no.
With the hiring of Bruce Arians, however, there’s a renewed sense of optimism. His resume has a lot to do with it — two-time Super Bowl champion as an assistant coach, two-time NFL coach of the year and mentor to Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer — but so, too, does Winston’s performance during the second half of last season. When he returned from his midseason benching, he looked like a completely different quarterback. He threw 13 touchdowns to four interceptions, gained 7.8 yards per pass and posted a 100.1 passer rating.
Is the optimism justified? There’s a case for confidence … and there’s a case for doubt.
The case for confidence
In limited action this preseason, Winston went 16-for-29 for 159 yards and one touchdown. It was a mostly pedestrian performance, notable more for what he didn’t do than what he did do: No interceptions. No fumbles. No turnovers.
That’s an awfully small sample from which to extract meaning, but if you want to argue that Winston has been playing smarter football, you might cite his 10-yard run during the game against the Steelers. On the second-and-5 play, he spun away from pressure and scrambled to his left. With his receivers covered, he shifted the ball from his right arm to his left and ran to the first-down marker.
Or you might cite his throwaway during the game against the Browns. The Bucs were trying to get the ball to Ronald Jones on a screen pass, but linebacker Joe Schobert sniffed it out. Instead of forcing the pass anyway, Winston threw the ball at the ground. The drive continued, and Winston led Tampa Bay into field-goal range, though Matt Gay ultimately missed the kick.
Sure, it’s only one broken play during a preseason game that we’ll soon forget, but it’s rare that Winston ever gives up on a play. He threw the ball away just five times last season. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the NFL with 59 throwaways.
Perhaps these plays, in conjunction with last season’s second-half performance, signal the arrival of a wiser and more calculated Winston. It’s also possible they mean nothing at all.
The case for doubt
Let’s put Winston’s dramatic second-half improvement into perspective. Over the first nine weeks, he produced a -17.2 percent DVOA, or defense-adjusted value over average, a Football Outsiders efficiency metric that takes into account game situation and strength of opponent. Think of it this way: During the first half of the season, Winston was 17.2 percent worse than an average quarterback in the same game situations. That -17.2 percent DVOA ranked 29th.
Over the final eight weeks, Winston produced a 23.4 percent DVOA. That ranked fifth and was on par with performances by Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (27.3 percent) and Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (26.8 percent). His improvement wasn’t just one of the best second-half improvements in 2018; it was one of the best second-half improvements of the past decade.
What’s more, Winston improved while his peers in the NFC South declined. Drew Brees’ passing DVOA fell 21.6 percentage points, Matt Ryan’s fell 31.8 percentage points and Cam Newton’s fell 31.9 percentage points.
Do their declines foreshadow a changing of the guard? Probably not. The convenient explanation for Brees’ decline is age (he turned 40 in January), but the more likely explanation is that he played at an unsustainably high level during the first half and was just regular old Brees during the second half. The reasons for Ryan’s decline are less clear. He’s 34, so it’s possible his prime years are behind him. That might be an overreaction, though. When you look more closely, he didn’t have a bad second half as much as he had a bad three-game stretch in November and early December. As for Newton, he played through a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery.
It’s tempting to believe that Winston’s strong second-half performance is more representative than his poor first-half performance, especially because that’s the more recent sample. Plus, you could dismiss his first half as a “slow start,” the result of getting reacclimated to live NFL football after serving a three-game suspension. You could argue Winston felt pressure to match Ryan Fitzpatrick’s early-season success. You could blame coach Dirk Koetter for his lack of commitment to either quarterback.
Those claims might be valid, to varying degrees, but they’re not terribly relevant now, and here’s why: Improvement during the second half of a season isn’t predictive of performance the next season, according to Football Outsiders research. Full-season performance is more predictive.
We can use Winston as an example. In each of his four seasons, his passing DVOA improved during the second half — by 10.4 percentage points in 2015, by 1.9 in 2016, by 0.1 in 2017 and by 40.6 in 2018. There is no pattern of those improvements carrying over. He performed worse during the first half of 2016 than he did during the second half of 2015, and he performed worse during the first half of 2018 than he did during the second half of 2017.
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There are reasons to believe Winston will be a better quarterback overall this season — the tutelage of Arians and the emergence of Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard are chief among them. History tells us, however, that progress won’t be linear. Chances are his fifth season will look more familiar than new.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.