TAMPA — It won’t take very long for Bruce Arians to decide if Jameis Winston should return as the Bucs quarterback for 2020.
All he needs is two minutes.
In fact, Arians said Monday that Winston’s mastery of the two-minute offense in the past two weeks offers the best evidence of his growth and serves as an important tool in the evaluation process.
Winston drove the Bucs 92-yards in six plays to set up Peyton Barber’s game-winning 1-yard touchdown run with 1:43 remaining in the Bucs’ 30-27 win over the Cardinals Sunday.
It was the second time in the game Winston helped get the Bucs in the end zone to give his team the lead with the clock winding down.
After the Cardinals took a 13-10 lead with 1:03 remaining in the half, Winston completed 5-of-6 passes, including a 10-yard TD to tight end O.J. Howard with 8 seconds remaining.
“It’s an ongoing process for me,’’ Arians said Monday. “You know…the good, the bad, the ugly. You put it all together. Two minute is huge. When you can take your team at the half and go down and get a touchdown in a minute, the end of the game. We didn’t do it (against) Frisco but now we’ve done it for a few weeks. You don’t want to really get in that situation in your first game. But I see that growth. I see him throwing balls away. You know?’’
In the Bucs’ 40-34 overtime loss at Seattle last week, Winston drove the Bucs for the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 34-27, Winston completed four passes to march the Bucs 75 yards in 10 plays and set up Dare Ogunbowale’s 1-yard touchdown run with 46 seconds remaining against the Seahawks.
In the same game, Winston drove the Bucs to within field goal range in the final 20 seconds of the first half but rookie Matt Gay missed from 50-yards.
“Jameis two weeks in a row has taken us the length of the field to win or tie a ballgame,’’ Arians said. “That’s the growth you’re looking for.
“We’ve been outstanding at the half all year. Last week, with (20) seconds, this week with a minute. That touchdown was huge after we gave up one, to take that lead back at the half. To me, that’s how you judge NFL quarterbacks. Can they play in that situation? Forget the rest. Can they play in that? And right now, I don’t know anybody playing better in the last three or four weeks.’’
What’s been the key to Winston’s success in the two-minute offense?
“I think it’s confidence,’’ Arians said. “Knowing what you’re doing. Trusting the guys around you. Putting in the time to know what you’re going to see. Is this team a blitz team? Is it Cover 2? What do they do in two minute? Are they a Tampa Two team? So have some preconceived notions where this ball may go in two-minute.’’
Of course, if there is a major cause for pause with Winston, it’s his failure to protect the football. Winston has the most turnovers since entering the NFL in 2015 with 72 interceptions and 18 lost fumbles in 65 games.
Winston had two more interceptions Sunday, giving him an NFL-leading 14 on the season, only four shy of his career-high in 2016.
"The guy made a really good play on the first pick,'' Arians said. "We could’ve maybe run a better route, but that was where to go with the ball. Same thing with the second one. I see growth. I see growth as a leader. I see growth as a quarterback.''
Winston continues to set club records. He became the first Bucs quarterback to pass for at least 300 yards in four straight games Sunday. His 2,765 yards passing and 19 touchdowns also is the most through nine games in team history.
Winston also did a good job of throwing the football away to avoid sacks. "That’s huge,'' Arians said. "You’d rather it be second-and-10 instead of second-and-18.''
Should Winston manage to avoid the turnover-fest like the one he had in London when he coughed up the football six times against the Panthers, it may be hard to move on from him in 2020. For starters if the draft were held today, at 3-6, the Bucs would own the No. 8 overall pick, too far down the order to secure one of the top three quarterbacks.
A long-term contract extension seems less likely than the Bucs applying the franchise player tag to Winston, which could be in the $25- to $27-million range.
As for Winston’s potential for returning in 2020, Arians was even more optimistic with NBC.com NFL analyst Peter King Monday.
“If he plays like he has for the last two weeks for the rest of the season, I think there’s a real good chance,’’ Arians said.
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLStroud.