TAMPA — For the longest time, the Buccaneers have asked you to imagine a different Jameis Winston.
Look beyond the indecision under pressure, and imagine what Winston can be when he grows more comfortable in the pocket. Do not dwell on the struggles with accuracy, and imagine a more precise version of Winston. Stop focusing on who Winston is today, and imagine who he can be when his potential is fulfilled.
And yet, all these years later, Winston still makes it difficult to see. So perhaps it’s time to imagine something different.
Imagine, instead, if Tampa Bay had drafted Marcus Mariota.
Clearly, it’s not the first time the question has been pondered. The two quarterbacks have been linked since the fall of 2014 when Mariota succeeded Winston as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. They would go on to meet in the 2015 Rose Bowl, and then heard their names called one after the other in the NFL Draft. They faced each other in their NFL debuts, and their paths cross again today with both careers sputtering toward free agency.
Neither, at this point, looks like a true franchise quarterback.
But what if they just went to the wrong franchise?
Is it possible, in an alternate universe, that Mariota is the quarterback the Bucs have been seeking for more than 40 years?
In the days before the Bucs chose Winston with the No. 1 pick in 2015, general manager Jason Licht called it the most important draft in the franchise’s history. It was an opportunity, he said, to put the organization over the top and to start competing for championships immediately. Then-head coach Lovie Smith said everyone in the building was in total agreement that Winston was the right choice.
The theory was Winston was more NFL-ready because he played in a pro-style offense at Florida State while there were fears Mariota was the product of a gimmick offense at Oregon. In truth, their performances were fairly similar in Tampa Bay and Tennessee in 2015. Not bad for rookies, but nowhere near special.
Sixteen games after stumping for Winston, Smith was fired.
So would Mariota have made a difference?
Not as far as the head coach was concerned. Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt was fired after just seven games with Mariota.
In both cases, the franchises promoted offensive assistants for 2016. The idea was to maintain some sense of continuity for their young quarterbacks, but they went about it in different ways.
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Tennessee tried to take pressure off Mariota with a greater emphasis on the running game. The Bucs let it fly. Tampa Bay was seventh in the NFL in pass attempts from 2016-17. Teams with similar passing attacks had veterans such as Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Joe Flacco throwing the ball. For Tampa Bay, in retrospect, it was a foolhardy plan with an inexperienced quarterback.
The Bucs went 14-18 during those two years, and the Titans went 18-14.
So would Mariota have made a difference?
Tennessee had a slightly better defense and a much better running game. In other words, they did not win simply because of Mariota. And if Mariota had been given the same pressures and expectations in Tampa Bay, the results would not have been any prettier.
Winston threw 29 interceptions during those two seasons, which obviously contributed to Tampa Bay’s losing record. But if Mariota had attempted the same number of passes, based on his ratio of interceptions, he would have been picked off 27 times. Not a comforting thought.
As he has grown older, Mariota has gotten more gun-shy. His interception rate has gone down, but his effectiveness as a quarterback has also seriously waned. The physical talent is there, but the ability to pick apart defenses has simply not progressed.
Like the Bucs, the Titans have tried changing their quarterback’s fortunes by changing coaches one more time. And, like the Bucs, the Titans viewed 2019 as a make-or-break season with Mariota’s contract expiring.
Seven weeks later, Mariota is on the bench and Winston remains on the cusp.
Licht called the 2015 draft the most important in franchise history and he was correct in one sense. Choosing a quarterback at the top of a draft is an immensely risky proposition. Not just due to the value of a top pick, but because of the psychology behind it.
Teams are reluctant to give up on a quarterback they’ve invested so heavily in. And that means taking the wrong quarterback at the top of a draft can set a franchise back for years. Subsequent decisions double down on that choice, and a team ends up with long-term, quarterback paralysis.
So instead of trading up in the draft like the Rams and Eagles in 2016 to select Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, the Bucs stuck with Winston. Instead of taking a flyer on Dak Prescott in the fourth round, the Bucs kept the bench beside Winston empty. Instead of pondering Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes in 2017, the Bucs stuck with Winston.
Imagine Winston as a better version of himself? We’ve tried that.
Imagine Mariota in a Bucs uniform? That wouldn’t have worked any better.
Imagine a world where the Bucs recognized neither player had what it takes to be a franchise quarterback?
That’s an alternate universe with playoff games and a sold-out stadium.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.