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Bucs-Colts AfterMath: How sustainable is the Jameis Winston Experience?

We’re talking about Tampa Bay’s grit and resilience but overlooking the reason why it fell behind in the first place: the quarterback.
In Sunday's win, Jameis Winston finished with four passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, three interceptions and more than 400 passing yards. He’s the only quarterback in NFL history to hit those marks in a single game. [CHRIS O'MEARA  |  Associated Press]
In Sunday's win, Jameis Winston finished with four passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, three interceptions and more than 400 passing yards. He’s the only quarterback in NFL history to hit those marks in a single game. [CHRIS O'MEARA | Associated Press]
Published Dec. 10, 2019
Updated Dec. 10, 2019

TAMPA — A different Jameis Winston stood in front of reporters Sunday after the Buccaneers’ dizzying comeback win over the Colts.

He wasn’t the crestfallen Winston we’re used to seeing after games.

He was relieved. He was grateful. He was proud.

“In the past, we would have lost that game,” he said.

And he was right. Because they have.

Winston had played in 13 other games in which the Bucs had a turnover margin of minus-3 or worse. They lost 12 of them.

MORE BUCS: Tampa Bay mathematically eliminated from playoff contention

The lone win? Against the Browns last season — and they needed an overtime period to pull it off.

So this week we’re talking about grit and resilience, comebacks and momentum. Nevermind how the Bucs fell behind by 14 points. All that matters is that they beat the odds.

For all of his flaws, Winston’s refusal to surrender is, undeniably, one of his greatest strengths. On Sunday, that attitude was contagious.

Don’t think so? Here’s a test: When Winston missed the start of the second half because of a thumb injury, how much confidence did you have that Ryan Griffin, he of zero career passes, would rally the Bucs? Okay. When Winston jogged back onto the field later on, how much confidence did you have then? Even the most ardent Winston detractors can’t argue that Tampa Bay stood a better chance without him in the game than with him in the game.

MORE BUCS: Winston visits hand specialist over broken thumb

What now? In the euphoria of a three-game win streak, it would be easy to overlook the unintended double meaning in Winston’s “in the past” statement.

That meaning: The next time Winston and the Bucs turn the ball over that often — and there will be a next time — they will lose.

Losing under such circumstances isn’t a Tampa Bay thing. It’s a football thing. Teams almost never overcome minus-3 turnover deficits. Since 2015, they’ve succeeded 14 times. They’ve failed 208 times.

We didn’t see a tipping point Sunday. We saw an escape act.

This isn’t to say the 2019 Bucs aren’t a better team than we’ve watched over the past decade. They are. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are arguably the most fearsome receiving duo in the NFL. Vita Vea is having a breakout season. Shaquil Barrett has been a revelation. The young secondary, once a liability, is contesting passes and coming up with takeaways. In terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, Tampa Bay is either average or near average. The arrow is pointing up.

MORE BUCS: Is Tampa Bay for real?

Fundamental flaws remain, however — particularly Winston’s moth-to-flame relationship with interceptions. He came into this season having thrown multiple picks in an NFL-high 16 games, an average of four per season. He has had seven such games this season. Yes, this is his first season under coach Bruce Arians’ tutelage, but SEVEN.

Not all interceptions are the same, of course, but Winston’s often are crippling. His three interceptions Sunday alone cost the Bucs more than 40 percentage points of win probability, according to numberFire. Forget playoffs. The best a team can hope for when its quarterback has that kind of track record is an 8-8 season.

Don’t buy the win probability hocus pocus? I’ll reframe: Opponents have started inside the Tampa Bay 40-yard line after an interception 11 times. That’s also an NFL high. They’ve gone on to score a touchdown five times and a field goal two times (they’ve also missed two field goals and lost two fumbles). And that’s not even counting the interceptions opponents have returned for touchdowns. Winston has thrown five of those this season. He threw four total in his previous four seasons.

In this regard, Winston is heading in the wrong direction. He has thrown interceptions at the league’s highest rate (4.5 percent) and is on track to be responsible for the largest share of interceptions (6.9 percent) in a season during the Super Bowl era. On a related note, the Bucs defense has had the third-worst opponent average starting field position. If you’ve wondered why Tampa Bay is allowing 29.3 points per game, second most in the NFL, Winston has much to do with it.

Are the Bucs teasing a turnaround? They very well could be. Just know that what we saw Sunday was a display of good character, not a formula for sustained success. Though Winston’s future in Tampa Bay is in doubt, there is no questioning this truth: Turnovers and wins don’t mix.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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