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Bucs-Lions: Jameis Winston has changed, but you might not have noticed

The quarterback’s league-leading interception rate is overshadowing a potential step forward in his development.
Last season, Jameis Winston threw the ball away five times. This season, he has thrown it away 23 times. “One of the hardest things to do is to throw the ball away — trust me,” Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Last season, Jameis Winston threw the ball away five times. This season, he has thrown it away 23 times. “One of the hardest things to do is to throw the ball away — trust me,” Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Dec. 14, 2019

TAMPA — Jameis Winston had just thrown a pick-six, his fifth of the season.

The Bucs trailed the Colts 24-14, and it wasn’t even halftime yet.

Tampa Bay needed to answer, and quickly. Only two minutes and 32 seconds remained in the second quarter. Indianapolis was going to get the ball to start the third.

The Bucs took possession at the Tampa Bay 25-yard line. The last thing they could afford was another turnover on their side of the field.

On first and 10, Winston dropped back and looked to Chris Godwin along the left sideline. Sensing pressure from his right, he drifted left and ramped up to throw.

And then he stopped.

Rock Ya-Sin, the cornerback covering Godwin, had safety behind him to help. Two vs. one.

Winston, keeping his eyes downfield, bounced to his left some more, loaded and chucked the ball deep.

But his target wasn’t Godwin.

It was the Colts’ bench.

Winston threw the ball away.

On second and 10, Winston hit Godwin over the middle for 9 yards. On third and 1, he hit O.J. Howard over the middle for 8 more yards and the first down.

The first down in itself wasn’t a remarkable accomplishment. Winston always has excelled at moving the chains. Since he entered the NFL in 2015, about 40 percent of his passes have resulted in either a first down or touchdown. Only Jimmy Garoppolo of the 49ers and Deshaun Watson of the Texans have higher rates.

The accomplishment was in how Winston got there. He gave up on a play in order to make another. His patience paid off, as the Bucs went on to score a touchdown that cut the Colts’ lead to three points.

Related: Despite thumb fracture, Jameis Winston will play vs. Lions

Throwing the ball away might seem like an ordinary football play, but it isn’t in Winston’s nature. Or at least it hasn’t been. It’s not how he’s wired. He never quits. It’s a strength. And a weakness.

“Everyone’s got to do their job, but me personally, I’ve got to get the ball out on time to give us a chance and just throw the ball away,” he said last month when asked about the number of hits he has taken this season. “That’s just something I’ve got to do to help fix that problem.”

Easier said than done, as Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich can attest.

“One of the hardest things to do is to throw the ball away — trust me,” said Leftwich, who played quarterback for four teams over 10 seasons in the NFL. “It’s so hard when you’re trying to do what you can every single play because you never know the play that’s going to win the game. You never know when that big play is going to happen.”

“When you’re the guy that’s responsible for the offense moving, responsible for the conversions on third downs, that thing becomes tougher than you think of just throwing that ball out.”

Related: No, Jameis Winston is not on track to be the next Peyton Manning

In his first season under Leftwich’s guidance, Winston has struggled mightily at times. His 23 interceptions are by far the most in the NFL (Baker Mayfield ranks second with 16) and his 4.5 percent interception rate is the highest of his career. They’ve been costly giveaways, too. Opponents have started inside the Tampa Bay 40 after an interception a league-high 11 times.

The interceptions, for the most part, haven’t been a product of bad luck. Winston’s turnover-worth play rate of 5.5 percent ranks 33rd out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s not an aberration or coincidence; that’s a pattern.

At the same time, Winston’s increased willingness to throw the ball away is a sign, however small, that he is heeding his coaches’ advice. He has talked before about living to fight another down and hasn’t followed through.

In fact, until now, his rate of throwaways had declined each season, from 3.0 percent in 2015 to 2.7 in 2016 to 2.0 in 2017 to 1.3 in 2018. This season, his rate is up — way up — to 4.5 percent.

Last season, he threw the ball away five times, according to Pro Football Focus. This season, he’s on track to quintuple that. His 23 throwaways are seventh most.

Related: How sustainable is the Jameis Winston Experience?

A good thing? Well, it’s a fine line. A low number of throwaways is probably a sign that a quarterback is taking too many risks. A high number is probably a sign that he is taking too few risks. (The NFL average is between 3 and 4 percent.)

The takeaway for now: Winston has scaled back the hero ball and isn’t confusing a single failure with a final defeat.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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