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Like it or not, the Bucs re-signing Jameis Winston makes the most sense

John Romano | It’s a risk to give him the keys to the franchise. But, given his progress, it’s a greater risk to let him walk away in 2020.
 
His first five seasons in the NFL have been somewhat disappointing, but it's hard to ignore the way Jameis Winston has been playing the past month. Without a high draft pick or an obvious free agent to target, the Bucs will probably roll the dice with Winston again in 2020. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
His first five seasons in the NFL have been somewhat disappointing, but it's hard to ignore the way Jameis Winston has been playing the past month. Without a high draft pick or an obvious free agent to target, the Bucs will probably roll the dice with Winston again in 2020. MONICA HERNDON | Times [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 20, 2019

TAMPA — So the great quarterback debate is all but complete. And it looks like hope will narrowly beat fear.

That was the heart of the argument when it came to Jameis Winston’s future in Tampa Bay. Would he give you faith, or more reason to doubt? Would Winston’s 2019 season make the Buccaneers feel better or worse about his potential in 2020 and beyond?

Two games and a bundle of skepticism still remain, but it seems obvious now the Bucs will be bringing Winston back. His last four games, when he averaged 374 passing yards with a 108.4 quarterback rating, made the decision easier, if not entirely popular.

Winston currently leads the NFL in passing yards with 4,573. Now there have been some fairly mediocre passers who have topped the league in yards since the NFL merger in 1970, but not a single one ever showed up the following season in a different uniform. And it’s hard to imagine Winston would be the first.

Related: We asked some NFL analysts what the Bucs should do with Jameis Winston. Here's what they said

Ultimately, this is the result the Bucs wanted, and Winston has given them just enough cover to justify it. While there’s no legitimate excuse for leading the NFL in interceptions, it can be an effective distraction when you also throw for more than 5,000 yards and 30-plus touchdowns.

So, yes, re-signing Winston is plausible. And it’s expedient. Also, expensive.

But is it smart?

That’s the question Winston’s 2019 failed to answer. No matter how good Winston looked at times, he still makes enough mistakes to make you wonder if you are seeing progress or simply a glimpse into a very frustrating future.

In other words, is he Peyton Manning or Vinny Testaverde?

All three were No. 1 picks. All three struggled early in their careers with interceptions. For Manning, the light eventually clicked and he went on to a Hall of Fame career and two Super Bowl titles. For Testaverde, he had a lengthy career that was often effective but never quite special.

Chances are, Winston will fall somewhere in between. The question is whether that’s good enough for his critics.

There’s no doubt Winston is judged more harshly than most. Much of that is tied, understandably, to some very ugly off-the-field incidents and accusations. Some of it is simply the expectations that come with being the top pick in a draft. And some of it, no doubt, has its roots in racism.

But here’s something to ponder:

Winston’s statistics this season are almost identical, and in some ways better, to what Dan Fouts did in San Diego in 1980. Both had 30 passing touchdowns, both had 24 interceptions. Fouts threw for 4,715 yards, and Winston is at 4,573 with two games to go. Fouts had an 84.7 passer rating and Winston is at 87.9.

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Related: Romano: What's behind the Bucs' improved run defense

Yet Fouts was named to the Pro Bowl that season and finished in the top-5 in the league’s MVP voting. Winston, meanwhile, is being asked whether he deserves his job.

They are different eras, for sure, and passing attacks have become more sophisticated. But the game hasn’t changed that much.

The point is that, for all his faults, Winston still has produced some impressive numbers. And he still has considerable upside if he can just learn to control his worst impulses on, and even off, the field.

Tampa Bay’s second-half surge has proven Winston can win under the right circumstances. And the obvious defensive improvements means the Bucs can potentially be contenders in 2020. For a franchise approaching a generation’s worth of postseason misfires, it’s almost inconceivable to imagine starting over again in that situation.

So putting a franchise tag or signing Winston to a short-term deal makes sense. Among the available options, he gives the Bucs their best shot at happiness, both immediately and long term.

Just so long as they understand this:

When you hand your heart to someone, you risk having it broken.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.