TAMPA — More than 60 games into the Jameis Winston era, you wonder: Are the Buccaneers any better than they were before they drafted him in 2015?
From 1976 through 2014, they suffered more losses than any other team, winning only 38.5 percent of their games. Since? They’ve actually fared worse, winning only 38.4 percent of their games.
Winston isn’t solely responsible, but he’s not merely a victim of circumstance, either. Often, he’s part of the problem. He has thrown an NFL-high 14 interceptions this season, and they’ve been costly. On average, each has reduced Tampa Bay’s chances of winning by about 10 percentage points.
It’s no surprise then that when Winston throws picks, especially more than one in a game, the Bucs lose, with last Sunday’s win against the Cardinals being the rare exception. In many ways, that game was an anomaly, a game that Tampa Bay should have lost in a season in which it has lost games that it should have won. Arizona not only won the turnover battle but also scored first and held a fourth-quarter lead.
So what will have to happen for the Bucs to beat the Saints on Sunday and win consecutive games for only the second time in three seasons? What are the defining characteristics of wins during the Winston era? Let’s explore.
1. Winston plays well. I know. Stop the presses! Still, it’s worth noting that Winston has had more bad games than good, and the difference between them is stark. In wins, he completes a higher percentage of his passes, gains more yards per pass, throws a higher percentage of touchdowns and commits fewer turnovers.
But even when Winston plays well, he’s seldom the reason the Bucs win; he’s a reason.
2. The Bucs build an early lead. We often assign greater weight to how a quarterback performs in what we think of as “clutch” situations — during the two minutes at the end of a half or during the fourth quarter when the score is close, for example. We talk about his ability to deliver “when it counts,” overlooking that the first couple of quarters count, too — and maybe more so.
We think of NFL games as these back-and-forth contests, but generally that’s not the case. Each team gets roughly a dozen possessions, so teams that jump in front early enjoy an enormous advantage. They dictate; their opponents react.
In 18 of Winston’s 24 wins, the Bucs led at halftime. They led by at least a touchdown in nine of those wins and by at least a field goal in 17. Oddly, they led at halftime six times this season and held on to win only half of the time. That’s likely just a blip. From Week 10 of the 2016 season through Week 13 of the 2018 season, Tampa Bay had won 11 straight games it led at halftime.
3. The defense forces takeaways — lots of them. With Winston as their starting quarterback, the Bucs are doomed when they don’t force a takeaway. They’re 2-12 in such games. When they force a takeaway, they’re 22-27.
As the 22-27 record implies, one takeaway often isn’t enough. Sometimes, two takeaways aren’t enough. It’s almost as if the Bucs can’t win unless their opponent gives them extra turns.
When they record exactly one takeaway, they’re 5-16. When they record exactly two, they’re 5-10. Three, as it turns out, is the magic number. When they record at least three, they’re 12-1, with their lone loss coming against the Lions in 2017. Eight of those 12 wins, however, were against opponents who were below .500 at the time, including the Saints in a December 2016 game in Tampa. The Bucs intercepted Drew Brees three times that day and still barely won.
Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, New Orleans almost never commits three turnovers in a game. In fact, the Saints haven’t done so since 2017, and they haven’t committed two in any game this season.
So if the Bucs are to win Sunday, they’re going to have to make their own luck. If you haven’t already, you’ll probably hear or read that Tampa Bay will need to run the ball against New Orleans. The reasoning: Running the ball will eat up clock, shorten the game and limit the number of possessions for Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and the rest of the explosive Saints offense. That reasoning is faulty for a couple of reasons:
• If a team tries to “shorten the game,” it’s not just limiting opportunities for its opponent; it’s limiting opportunities for itself.
• There is no evidence that running the ball helps a defense. There is no relationship between the amount of time a defense rests and its effectiveness once it returns to the field. The assertion that there is a relationship is bunk.
If the Bucs stubbornly commit to the run, they will be setting themselves up for an all too familiar outcome: failure. They’re not all that good at running to begin with, and they’re not likely to change against a tough Saints run defense (it ranks seventh in Football Outsiders’ efficiency ratings). Their pass defense has been strong, too, but will be without star cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who allowed only two catches in Tampa Bay’s Week 5 loss in New Orleans.
Winston and the Bucs offense should instead focus on protecting the ball, building an early lead, limiting three-and-outs and racking up first downs, even if that means taking chances on fourth down that they’re not accustomed to taking.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, numberFire, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.