TAMPA — For nearly five seasons, Jameis Winston’s career has been a chaotic journey up the down escalator.
He is coming off consecutive 450-yard passing games, leads the NFL with 4,573 passing yards and reset his club record for touchdown passes with 30.
The Bucs have won four games in a row and five of six entering their 1 p.m. game Saturday against Houston at Raymond James Stadium.
But Winston’s 24 interceptions are a principle reason why another Bucs season won’t end in a Gatorade bath.
His future with the Bucs is the topic of debate even within the walls of their training facility.
He is either following the career arc of Peyton Manning or headed toward an irreversible spiral like Blake Bortles.
“I think that a lot of people can have a good opinion of him or feel a certain way,’’ said Dan Orlovsky, an ESPN NFL analyst who played quarterback for five teams over 12 seasons. “But facts trump their feelings.’’
The fact is that everyone seems to have an opinion on what the Bucs should do with Winston in 2020. The ones that count, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, have stopped short of committing to Winston beyond this season when his contract expires, but it’s clear they like the way he’s playing.
But are the Manning comparisons legitimate? Can Winston still learn how to protect the football? Can you win with a gunslinger like him? If you were the Bucs, do you sign Winston to a long-term contract, use the franchise tag on him or somewhere in between?
We talked to a sampling of NFL analysts, some of them former players or coaches like Booger McFarland, Orlovsky, Bruce Gradkowski and Tony Dungy. Others, such as Brett Favre, Chris Simms, Peter King and Dan Patrick, have weighed in on national platforms.
Here are their viewpoints:
Is Winston the next Peyton Manning or Brett Favre?
Perhaps nobody is more qualified to talk about Winston-Manning comparisons than Dungy.
When he arrived in Indianapolis, Manning was a turnover machine. Dungy sat him down and made the comparisons to Brett Favre, whom Dungy competed against twice a year in the old NFC Central.
Dungy: “I told him what we thought about Favre, and despite the fact Green Bay had a dominant roster, they never won as much as they could have. We talked about what it would take to win it all. All he thought about was being explosive. My impact was to tell him that he could be explosive and protect the ball. And ball protection was going to be the way we would win.
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“I challenged him that if we led the league in giveaway-takeaway (ratio) that I guarantee we’ll win a Super Bowl. By my second year there, he believed that we would put together a defense that could be effective if we didn’t put them on short fields. That’s when he went 49 touchdowns, 10 interceptions in 2004.’’
Orlovsky: “Just because someone else did it and the guy was the greatest of all time, doesn’t mean Jameis will or Jameis can.
“I’d have to sit down with Jameis and go like, ‘Why? Give me the reason why you threw ball here and here and here.’ Again, you can cross your fingers and next year we’re having the same conversations.’’
McFarland: “Go check the numbers and see how many picks Peyton (Manning) had his first four to five years and compare.’’
Dungy: "Take a look at this QBs stats. Tell me who it is and tell me how much different they are than Jameis? First four years in the NFL: 111 TDs 81 interceptions. Record 32-32. Year 5: 27 TDs, 19 interceptions. Record 10-6. They are Peyton Manning’s. Years 6 through 10: 168 touchdowns, 53 interceptions. Record 61-17
And Peyton had the benefit of one system for 10 years.’’
Patrick: “He thinks he’s Brett Favre out there. And Favre ended up with 300 interceptions in his career. Granted, Hall of Fame career. But he’s a little too loosey, goosey for me. But he fascinates me, man.’’
Favre: “My arm strength was a huge asset but it also hurt me. That was a play we ran. We called it X-deep-over. And I was throwing it. You called it, I’m throwing it because I could do it. And it would get me in trouble. Sometimes it would work. So you don’t call that play. Call a play that restricts what gets him in trouble.”
Is Winston good, bad or something in between?
Gradkowski: I grade every throw for Pro Football Focus. When I can see a turnover-worthy play, a play I don’t agree with, I say, ‘Why did you put it there?’
“When he’s on, he’s on and he makes big-time throws and has a ton of upside. The type we always talking about on Pro Football Focus is that he’s the type of guy if you have him, you have a chance. If you go to the playoffs, it may be two out of five years, but you say, man, we got a shot with this guy. You may only go two out of five years, but you have a chance to win the Super Bowl. Whereas if it’s a Teddy Bridgewater, you may go to the playoffs four out of five years, but when you get there, you don’t have a great chance to win the Super Bowl.’’
Favre: “We don’t get to see it much, but I think there’s such a tremendous upside and you’re willing to try to work through that and I think Bruce (Arians) will do a wonderful job. He’s super productive aside from the interceptions.”
Orlovsky: “I think that Jameis is the kind of quarterback that for 60 plays a game looks like a Pro Bowler and like the first pick in the draft, and for seven plays, he looks like a first-year starter.
“I always tell people this: There’s a lot of talented quarterbacks in the NFL. I never became a long-term starter. I could be really good for 60 pays. It’s that 5-6-7 plays I was bad. That’s the difference. Gary Kubiak told me the difference between me or starters or franchise guys is a six to 10 play window and I never was never able to get there. Jameis is still there."
What should the Bucs do?
Dungy: "Of course, I think they should stay with Jameis. I don’t know what that means in terms of money and salary cap but he will give them the best chance to win over the next five years. If they start over with a quarterback they will set the team back. Even if they get a Peyton Manning.
McFarland: "Franchise him. Simply put. He’s been good enough that I’m willing to try another year to see if I’m worth a grain of salt as a coach to help him with his turnover issue. ... Now I’m not sure Jameis can do it but I’ve seen enough good that I’m willing to try. After all, isn’t that the reason Bruce was brought here?'
"The alternative is to draft a rookie and go through the growing pains and hope.''
Orlovsky: “For all the good, the No. 1 way to lose football games and hurt your team is to turn the football over. It’s always been the case.
"I’m the biggest quarterback supporter and reasoner out there. But I think if you’re the Bucs, you can’t fear change. It’s not a reason for staying the course.’’
Gradkowski: “These guys aren’t falling off the trees. You may be better off with Jameis than without. But it’s a lot of money that you have to pay out. If you do keep him, you have to find another guy as well, a Jimmy Garrapolo type in the second round or a guy who falls to you in first round. You can never have enough quarterbacks. You either face injuries or keep going after them until you find your guy.
“If the defense can overcome turnovers, you say they’re that team. We sling it around the yard, we have a few turnovers a game. He’s been around five years. He’s not going to change his game. You have to be okay with seeing what you’re seeing.’’
King: “I think the biggest question right now for the Bucs, and I have broached this idea with what I call a bridge contract. Let’s say two years, $55 million. Something like that. Because I don’t know right now I would be comfortable unless it was really protected with a lot of asterisks around potential guarantees. I would not feel comfortable, right now, today, and who knows how I will feel in seven weeks, but I would not feel comfortable giving him right now a market value four to five-year contract.
Sims: “I don’t think anyone is going to go, oh, we’re going to sign Jameis Winston up for five years and just go with him. The problem is his good is absolutely phenomenal good but his bad is absolutely phenomenal bad. And there’s no middle ground with him sometimes and that’s what’s frustrating.’’
Patrick: "Tampa has got a question here. I think it may come down to this for Tampa. Now I don’t have any intel on this. This is just a gut feeling. Tampa may have to decide between Jameis Winston or Cam Newton. Do you bring in Cam Newton? Keep him in the NFC South? He’s going to cost you. But so is Jameis Winston. If I said they were going to cost you the same, would you rather have Jameis Winston of Cam Newton? And with Bruce Arians, I don’t know. From what I’m told, he loves Jameis Winston because he’s got a lot of talent. And I don’t think that’s ever the issue with Jameis Winston.’’
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLStroud