TAMPA — The idea was to give Jameis Winston everything a quarterback could possibly want this season. Almost as if the Bucs were following a how-to kit to construct their very own franchise star.
Bring in a noted quarterback guru to be his coach? Check.
Give the left tackle a fat contract to protect his blind side? Check.
Pay him a little more than Matt Ryan and a little less than Tom Brady? Check.
Make sure his security blanket is securely in place? Oops.
Well, maybe Winston will still be fine. Maybe there are enough other options in the Tampa Bay offense, and maybe he has reached a level of maturity that he can do without his little buddy.
But doesn’t it seem like Winston was missing Adam Humphries on Sunday?
They were once a pretty good pair, Winston and Humphries. Mind you, we’re not talking Montana-Rice or Aikman-Irvin. We’re not even suggesting they were among the top duos of today’s NFL. But there was an obvious comfort level between them, particularly in third-down situations.
And considering how committed the Bucs are to Winston in this make-or-break season, it is curious that they allowed one of his favorite targets to slip out of town.
By now, you probably know Humphries signed a four-year, $36 million free agent contract with Tennessee in the off-season. You are probably aware the Bucs were in a salary cap crunch, and you might even think that type of investment is a little pricey for a slot receiver.
All in all, you can make a good case for letting Humphries leave.
Except for his value to the franchise’s would-be savior.
You see, Humphries wasn’t designed to be a huge part of Tampa Bay’s offense even under Dirk Koetter. When Ryan Fitzpatrick was throwing the ball, Humphries was his fifth-favorite target in 2018. A little more than 10 percent of Fitzpatrick’s passes were thrown in his direction.
But when Winston was in the pocket, Humphries was neck-and-neck with Mike Evans as the No. 1 target. More than 20 percent of Winston’s passes went to Humphries. And because they were typically shorter routes, Winston completed a higher percentage of passes when throwing to Humphries.
All of which may be forgotten if Winston finds his groove against Carolina this week.
But if Winston continues to struggle, you can count on hearing about this again.
Of course, part of the issue is that Bruce Arians brought a different type of offense with him to Tampa Bay, and a small, shifty receiver such as Humphries did not appear to have much value in this scheme.
The Bucs are carrying more tight ends, who can help as blockers, and the burden for catching short-range passes has shifted to the guys in the backfield. Running backs were the target on nearly one-third of the passes thrown by Winston against the 49ers, which is a much higher percentage than last year.
In essence, Winston is having to learn to look for different receivers in different places than what he has been accustomed to the past few years.
“Every game is a learning experience,’’ Arians said of Winston’s performance Sunday. “Obviously, there were some plays in there (where Winston does) not quite know the offense well enough yet to (hit) second, third and fourth guys.’’
Does that mean Sunday was a blip? As he gets more comfortable with this offense, will Winston hit the open receivers with more ease?
You would certainly think so. The question is how long it takes, and how much of the season is lost in the process.
The connection between quarterbacks and receivers goes a lot deeper than squiggly lines drawn in a playbook. There is a bond, a trust, an intuition that transcends the normal route. And it takes time to build.
“There’s a lot more that goes into that relationship besides running a route,’’ said receiver Chris Godwin, who had Tampa Bay’s only offensive touchdown on Sunday. “You have different adjustments based on coverages, the timing can be different, you have different concepts based on certain reads. And there’s a progression to all of this.
“You don’t just say 'Run this route and I’ll throw it to you,’ because you have defenses trying to stop you and they get paid a lot of money and are very good at what they do.’’
There is no doubt Winston has weapons to choose from. There’s Evans and Godwin at receiver. O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate at tight end. Peyton Barber and Dare Ogunbowale out of the backfield.
But there is also no Humphries for Winston to lean on.
Now, chances are, it didn’t have an effect in Sunday’s loss to San Francisco.
But that possibility is worth considering as the season continues.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
A look ahead at Bruce Arians’ first year in Tampa Bay and a critical season for Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers.