Say you had a quarterback who was the No. 1 overall pick and a turnover machine. He has more interceptions in his first four seasons than any player during that period, the last of which ended in missing the playoffs again. And this presumptive face of the franchise is surrounded by talent. Two Pro Bowl-caliber receivers. An ascending running back.
But the white-haired head coach is frustrated. The fan base is clamoring for change. What do you do?
If you said cut ties with the quarterback and move on, congratulations. You just threw away Peyton Manning.
The subject came up the other day during a conversation with Tony Dungy about the plight of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. The Nos. 1 and 2 picks in the 2015 NFL draft, respectively, should be preparing to square off Sunday in Nashville in a battle of two of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks.
Instead, the Titans benched Mariota in favor of former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill while Winston is coming off a six-turnover debacle in the Buccaneers’ 37-26 loss to Carolina on Oct. 13 in London.
“It’s tough and I feel badly for both of those guys because they’re both good young men and really good players,” said Dungy, the former Bucs and Colts coach who stars on NBC’s Football Night in America.
“It reminds me a lot before I got to Indianapolis, Peyton had adjusted to one system and had some really good players around him with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and Edgerrin James. In the first four years, he was still .500 and set a record for interceptions.
“That’s when Jim Mora came out and had the thing about ‘Playoffs!’ In Years 5 through 12, I think Payton threw 400 touchdown passes and 100 interceptions.”
To be precise, Manning passed for 419 touchdowns and 153 interceptions, but point taken.
Is this the time for the Bucs to be thinking about cutting ties with Winston?
How Winston failed the Bucs
Manning set an NFL record as a rookie with 28 interceptions. Through his first four seasons, he threw 111 touchdowns with 81 interceptions. At the start of 2019, Winston had 88 touchdown passes and 68 interceptions. He enters Sunday’s game with a 12-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season.
By Year 5, however, the Colts already had 13-3 and 10-6 seasons, reaching the playoffs twice. Under Winston, the Bucs’ only winning season came in 2016 when they went 9-7 in Dirk Koetter’s first year as head coach.
Winston appeared to have turned the corner with the best three-game stretch of his career earlier this season, capped by the 55-40 win over the Rams in Los Angeles to go 2-2. Then came consecutive losses at New Orleans and to Carolina, a six-turnover disaster.
Coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich say they never saw that coming.
“I don’t know if you ever foresee that, right?” Leftwich said.
Dating to Florida State, protecting the ball has been Winston’s problem. He’s struggled to avoid his first instinct of never giving up on a play. Arians has called it a “Superman” complex.
It’s understandable why a quarterback taken No. 1 would believe he has to be the biggest reason for turning around the franchise.
Winston has worked on some mechanical flaws. His footwork seems to improve each year. But he’s not a quick thrower. He needs a run game to use play-action to get away from the pass rush.
What the Bucs have given Winston are two Pro Bowl quality receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. All are 6-foot-plus targets with a wide catch radius, which can compensate for Winston’s lack of precision on deep passes.
Arians said he would be “very concerned,” if Winston has another turnover-fest.
Only twice has he followed a multi-interception game with one the next week. “My main goal every week is to give our team a chance to win,” Winston said. “When I do that we win.”
How the Bucs failed Winston
It’s important to remember that No. 1 overall picks go to the worst team in the NFL.
By the time coach Lovie Smith entered his second season, the Bucs were a mess. The defense was the NFL’s worst. Evans was here, but struggling with dropped passes. Doug Martin’s off-field problems were beginning to surface.
Smith tanked the season finale in 2014 against the Saints to make sure they got Winston.
While the Bucs didn’t overlook Winston’s off-field behavior, they convinced themselves those issues were behind him. So much so, that the Bucs opted not to assign someone from the team’s security arm to shadow Winston as a rookie.
Winston, accused of sexual assault at FSU, was suspended the first three games last season for violating the player conduct policy. The NFL ruled Winston inappropriately touched a female Uber driver in Arizona following his rookie year.
The Bucs certainly committed resources to support him on the field. Left tackle Donovan Smith and left guard Ali Marpet were part of Winston’s draft class, although not a single Bucs offensive lineman has been named to the Pro Bowl during Winston’s tenure. They used their 2017 first-round pick on Howard. They added Godwin to pair with Evans and signed free agent DeSean Jackson. They signed Brate to a long-term deal.
“It’s difficult because both Marcus and Jameis have had different systems, different offensive coordinators and three head coaches,” Dungy said. “But if you go back, I don’t think there were very many people in the NFL that didn’t think they should be picked No. 1 and No. 2.
“You can’t say it hasn’t worked. Both those guys have played well at times. Marcus got his team to the playoffs and won in Kansas City and they fired his head coach”
But too often, Winston was sabotaged by a poor offensive line, poor defense or both.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht essentially ignored the trenches early in the draft on both sides until he took defensive tackle Vita Vea in the first round a year ago. He did attempt to make up for it by signing Ravens free-agent center Ryan Jensen, one of the highest-paid players at his position in the league. In the past two weeks, Winston has been sacked 13 times. The running game has been spotty at best.
Defensively, the Bucs have been a mess. A year ago, the Bucs allowed 29 points per game. This season under Bowles it is up to 30.83. How fair is it to ask a quarterback to get you 31 points per game to have a chance?
Coaching changes are disruptive, and like Mariota, he’s had three. But Koetter was his first offensive coordinator so this is only the second NFL offense Winston has had to learn.
“A lot of it is people aren’t very patient and they want to see it happen right away,” Dungy said. “There may be a little fan fatigue. The quarterback is often the scapegoat for a lot of things that might be wrong in the organization. They want to know, ‘How come you aren’t Aaron Rodgers or how come you’re not like Pat Mahomes?’”
While there have been reports that the Bucs are prepared to move on, they plan to give Winston 10 weeks to make his case to stay. Backup Ryan Griffin has never taken a regular-season snap.
“The thing you have to ask yourself as an organization is, ‘Who do we think we can get who is better?’” Dungy said. “‘Are we going to find somebody who works harder? Are we going to find someone who is that much more talented or who is better in the community?’
“As an organization, you can really agonize over these things. I remember Trent (Dilfer) had finally had some success for us and it was tough to let him go. He got hurt and the next year we decided to go with Shaun (King).
“Then a year or two later, we moved on from Shaun and signed Brad Johnson. Eventually, he wound up winning a Super Bowl for the Bucs. So sometimes it works out.”