In the Blair Witch Project, three students enter a Maryland forest to film a documentary about a local urban legend. Not long into their adventure, strange things begin happening. They hear twigs snapping at night. They find piles of rocks outside their tent. They discover literal stick figures hanging from trees.
Unnerved, they decide to pack up and leave. Without a map to guide them, they walk along a river all day and into the night but never find an exit. Eventually, they encounter a log, the same log they used to cross the river earlier.
“It’s not the same log,” insists Heather, one of the students, between sobs. “It’s not the same log.”
But it is. The students have walked in a circle. They’ve gotten nowhere, except closer to realizing the truth they’ve been denying: They are stuck, and there is no way out.
This is the story of the 2019 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sure, they still have 10 games left to play, but that’s like Heather saying “it’s not the same log.” You can avoid the truth for only so long.
The truth, in this case, is that the end is near.
The Bucs lost 37-26 to the Panthers on Sunday in London. They fell to 2-4. But none of that really matters. Opponents, scores, wins, losses — at this point, they’re just details.
What matters is the Bucs’ future at quarterback. They have a problem, and the problem is that they don’t have a future. We’re past the point of saying that we don’t know about Jameis Winston. We know. We have a 62-game sample. And that 62-game sample tells us that the Bucs are employing a quarterback who has plateaued.
You could argue that Sunday’s six-turnover performance was “just one game.” The fact is that it was not just one game. To be sure, Winston did not single-handedly lose the game. He had lots of help. What can’t be denied is that there was more bad than good. And that’s a pattern, not an aberration. Since Winston entered the NFL in 2015, he has committed at least four turnovers in five games. No one else has had more than two such games.
Coach Bruce Arians was asked after the game whether he considered benching Winston. “No,” he said flatly. That could be interpreted as a sign of faith. Consider, however, that Arians had no choice. He had to stick with Winston, and that was by design. The Bucs didn’t pursue a credible backup quarterback during the offseason because they wanted to protect Winston. They didn’t want him looking over his shoulder like he did last season with Ryan Fitzpatrick. That alone tells you what you need to know about Winston’s psyche.
Meanwhile, in Denver on Sunday, the Titans benched Marcus Mariota, the quarterback taken right after Winston in the 2015 draft, and replaced him with Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill won’t save Tennessee’s season, but he has at least thrown passes in an NFL regular season game, unlike Bucs backup Ryan Griffin. Mariota’s benching doesn’t cloud his future with the Titans; it makes it all the more clear. If you don’t know, then you know. Chances are Tennessee will be looking for a new quarterback for the 2020 season. Suddenly, the Winston-Mariota rematch scheduled for Oct. 27 is not just in serious jeopardy; we might never see it.
Like the Titans, the Bucs should be preparing to move on, no matter how much ownership and the front office like Winston, no matter how much they crave validation, no matter how much they loathe the idea of rebuilding. This isn’t to say Winston is a bad quarterback or that he’s a failure. He’s not. But is he the right quarterback for this team? He’s not that, either.
One of the reasons he’s not the right quarterback is timing. He’s eligible to become a free agent after the season. If the Bucs want to keep him, they’ll have to offer him a multiyear contract extension or apply the franchise tag. The franchise tag would increase his salary cap hit from $21 million this season to $27 million next season.
There are a couple of problems with that: 1.) That’s $6 million less for them to spend elsewhere, potentially at a position that could help Winston. 2.) That’s another year of avoiding reality. Essentially, the more the Bucs invest in Winston, the less they have to invest in building around him. What have they done so far to inspire hope that they can succeed where they have repeatedly failed? They’re just passing time and avoiding the inevitable.
When the Bucs visit Jacksonville in December, they’ll face a team that was in a similar quandary a couple of seasons ago. The Jaguars couldn’t make up their minds about Blake Bortles and ultimately offered him a contract extension. They tore up the deal after one season but are still paying the price — a $15.5 million cap penalty this season. There’s a lesson to be learned there.
If the Bucs continue along this path, they will end up back where they started: Nowhere.