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Byron Leftwich on Jameis Winston: 'This kid is perfectly fine’

Bucs 2019: The new staff is all in on Jameis Winston, who heads into Year 5 still trying to prove his worth as a No. 1 overall pick.
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. MONICA HERNDON | Times [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 31, 2019
Updated Sep. 2, 2019

TAMPA — The perception that Bruce Arians was hired to fix Jameis Winston implies there is something broken.

Aside from a tendency to commit too many turnovers, Winston has all the tools to become one of the league’s best passers.

In fact, his completion percentage, yards per game and passer rating have gone up each season. He posted career highs in yards per attempt (7.9) and total quarterback rating (71.8) in 2018.

And yet, Arians’ pit crew of quarterback mechanics include offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen and 80-year-old special consultant Tom Moore.

“We’re not here to fix this kid,’’ Leftwich said. “This kid can play already. Everybody has a head coach, an offensive coordinator, a quarterback coach. Right? You know, granted, B.A. is going to bring the best guys around. But we don’t need to fix this kid. This kid is perfectly fine. We can win football games with Jameis as our quarterback. We believe that. I believe that."

MORE BUCS: Will 2019 be Jameis’ breakout season? The case for and against.

“We can’t control the narrative around him, the opinion and people have of this kid. I know my opinion of this kid is high. He’s still a young quarterback. Nobody plays this game perfect. In this league, you have people like Jameis and then you say, ‘Well, Tom Brady is this, or Drew Brees is this.’ They’ve already been through stuff. People forget Drew Brees began in San Diego. We forget all about that. That position, as tough as it is, sometimes it brings unawareness in people’s judgment.’’

Here’s what will never change about Winston: his desire to be great. Not good. Not simply a rich man playing a kid’s game. This season he will earn $20.922-million, making him the 12th highest-paid quarterback in the NFL.

He wants to win, and until arriving as the No. 1 pick in 2015, Winston had won everywhere he has played. In high school and at Florida State, where he pocketed a national championship ring and Heisman Trophy.

But his 21-33 record with Tampa Bay includes only one winning season, when the Bucs went 9-7 in 2016.

Granted, some of Winston’s struggles were brought on by poor decisions on and off the field. He has thrown 58 interceptions and lost 18 fumbles in 56 games. Last year, Winston was suspended the first three games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He also was benched for two games after throwing four interceptions in a loss at Cincinnati.

But you also have to consider that Winston has piloted some pretty bad football teams. The Bucs defense was among the worst in the NFL last season, allowing 29 points per game.

This design featuring Jameis Winston appears in the Tampa Bay Times' Bucs preview section, a 48-page, full-cover special available Sunday on newsstands in Tampa Bay and delivered to subscribers. To subscribe, go to https://tampabaytimes.subscriber.services/
This design featuring Jameis Winston appears in the Tampa Bay Times' Bucs preview section, a 48-page, full-cover special available Sunday on newsstands in Tampa Bay and delivered to subscribers. To subscribe, go to https://tampabaytimes.subscriber.services/ [ MONICA HERNDON | Times ]

“To quarterback a losing franchise is really a difficult job because it’s all going to fall on you,’’ Christensen said. “So I’m impressed he’s still going, he’s still hungry and he sees that happening.

“He’s bought in. He’s worked at it and he’s been delightful. That would be one of the great stories, if we could turn this thing around and he could lead the charge. That would be the fairytale. He’s poured a lot into this place. He’s taken a lot of hits. He’s taken a lot of hits mentally and physically.’’

Where Winston could get better, if preseason is any indication, is in the short passing game.

Like his predecessor Dirk Koetter, Arians wants to take shots downfield. But unlike Koetter, Arians’ offense utilizes all five eligible receivers, meaning Winston’s ability to read the defense and make quick decisions may be the only thing protecting him.

In the preseason, Winston showed more of a willingness to check down to his running backs and get the football out of his hands quicker. But it also could expose him to harder hits and more injuries.

“You’re always trying to keep things simple,’’ Winston said. “As a quarterback, it’s a complex position because you have to know what everybody is doing. But I think the art to it is making things simple. It sounds cliché, like I have to make the simple decision, but sometimes checking that ball is the simple decision. It’s about moving the chains, it’s about a completion here and a completion there. That’s when you know the game has slowed down because it’s easy for you.

“It’s challenging at times in terms of wanting to make a play. But I think that’s part of growth at the quarterback job and awareness.’’

It’s part of the process of maturing as a quarterback in the NFL. Since entering the NFL, Winston has been outgunned in his own division by experienced quarterbacks who had won a Super Bowl like the Saints Drew Brees or been named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player like the Panthers’ Cam Newton and the Falcons’ Matt Ryan.

MORE BUCS: If you aren’t convinced Winston will be a star, read this.

Winston still is only 25. Most quarterbacks don’t win Super Bowls until they are closer to 30. Father Time may catch up to Brees, who is 40. Injuries have limited Newton, who underwent shoulder surgery and now has an ankle problem. Ryan didn’t reach the Super Bowl until he was 31 three years ago.

Off the field, Winston’s life has slowed down. He and his fiancée have a son who celebrated his first birthday in July. Christensen actually encouraged Winston to curtail some of his workouts this off-season and spend more time with his family. But that advice may not have been heeded.

Given his contract situation and the fact he’s on his third head coach, Winston admits this is a big year for him. A big year for the Bucs.

“Anytime I’m in the driver’s seat, I’m looking forward,’’ Winston said. “I’m not spending any time looking in the rear view mirror. I’m just excited to play football. It’s a win/win situation for me. I’ve just got to go out there and do what I do best.’’

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud