We’ve never seen a season like Jameis Winston’s before, and may not again

If the Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston throws two interceptions Sunday, he will be the first member of the NFL’s 30-30 club. It took a lot more than touchdowns and interceptions to get here.
The unwavering faith of Bucs coach Bruce Arians, left, and his commitment to evaluating Jameis Winston, right, over a full season has the Bucs quarterback on the verge of a historic feat.
The unwavering faith of Bucs coach Bruce Arians, left, and his commitment to evaluating Jameis Winston, right, over a full season has the Bucs quarterback on the verge of a historic feat. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 25, 2019|Updated Dec. 25, 2019

TAMPA — Jameis Winston is on the verge of making history.

With two more interceptions in the Bucs' season finale against Atlanta, Winston would become the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions.

A 30-30 club to which no one wants membership.

Only one player has come close. Packers quarterback Lynn Dickey threw 32 touchdowns and 29 interceptions for a 1983 Green Bay team that finished 8-8.

No quarterback has come as close this century as Winston, who has career highs with 31 touchdown passes and 28 interceptions. Until now, the closest was the Giants’ Eli Manning (31 touchdowns and 25 interceptions in 2010) and the Bears’ Jay Cutler (27 and 26 in 2009).

Only four quarterbacks have ever thrown 30 interceptions in a season, and just one since 1980. Vinny Testaverde threw 35 — and just 13 touchdowns — in his first full season with the Bucs in 1988.

Winston averages 1.8 interceptions a game, so if that number holds, he should reach 30. The Falcons have just 10 interceptions this season, tied for 20th in the league, but intercepted Winston twice in the teams’ first meeting in Week 12.

How does a quarterback get to such an unprecedented mark?

In this case, there are many factors, among them a high-volume passing offense, a “keep slinging it” mentality passed on from coach to quarterback, as well as a dedication to seeing through a quarterback’s struggles.

Bucs coach Bruce Arians has noted that his quarterbacks’ touchdown and interception numbers typically spike during their first season in his offense. That was the case with Carson Palmer, who threw a career-high 24 interceptions in Arizona in 2013. Andrew Luck’s career-high 18 interceptions came as a Colts rookie in 2012 with Arians.

Both had winning seasons in spite of those numbers. Palmer won 10 games in 2013, Luck won 11 as a rookie. After an interception rate of 3.8 percent in 2013, Palmer’s rate was 2.2 over the next four seasons under Arians. The Cardinals came within one win of the Super Bowl in 2015.

The volume of passes Winston throws is rare. Winston is 92 yards shy of a 5,000-yard passing season, something accomplished 11 other times in league history. Winston is on pace for 391 completions and 642 pass attempts.

There have been 11 instances since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger when a quarterback threw at least 25 touchdowns and 25 interceptions, and only one has done it in more pass attempts and pass attempts. New England’s Drew Bledsoe was 400-for-691 in a 25-touchdown, 27-interception season in 1994.

No retreat

Arians wants his quarterbacks to attack their mistakes head on. This week, he talked about when Peyton Manning asked out of his second NFL start because he had thrown six interceptions in two games.

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“You don’t learn anything by burying your head in the sand and hiding," Arians said. "I said, ‘Nope, we’re going no-huddle. Just go learn something.' He went right down the field and scored us a touchdown, so it’s just a matter of learning how to do it, continuing to do it [and] getting confidence in it. But you really have to learn how to protect the football.”

Though he’s corralled his share of quarterbacks plagued by turnovers, Arians admits he’s never coached a quarterback with struggles that Winston’s had. He has thrown six pick-sixes and six interceptions on the Bucs’ first offensive drive, including four on his first pass attempt. But Arians said there’s no question Winston would be better in Year Two of his offense if the Bucs decide to bring him back. Winston agreed.

"The more that you can understand the concepts in and out, the better you can execute the play," Winston said. "Having one year of experience with these concepts, I know further learning the concepts (and growing) the relationships with the coaches ... will definitely increase performance."

Back in 1979, Terry Bradshaw led the Steelers to a Super Bowl title throwing 26 touchdowns and 25 interceptions. Pittsburgh had 52 turnovers that season, but owned a balanced offensive attack that boasted a rush offense that ranked second in yards and first in yards per carry. The Steelers also had the NFL’s second best defense in yardage allowed.

By comparison, the Bucs’ rushing offense ranks 25th. Their yardage defense is 15th.

No threat of a benching

In deciding whether to place a franchise tag on Winston or sign him to a long-term deal, the Bucs are weighing his performance on a full 16-game scale. So they’ve essentially treated this season as a season-long evaluation of the quarterback. There was never any threat of benching. For better or worse, the Bucs offense was going where Winston took it.

Most quarterbacks don’t have the opportunity to throw that many interceptions in a season because they are benched far before they reach that mark, especially in today’s game.

Since 1998, only eight quarterbacks with an interception percentage higher than Winston's 4.7 started every game of the season.

Some of those names had a pedigree: Eli Manning in 2013 following two straight Pro Bowl seasons or Boomer Esiason after the same in 1990 or Brett Favre after four straight double-digit win seasons. Others were young: Peyton Manning as a 22-year-old rookie and 24-year-old Ben Roethlisberger. And the remaining few had short-lived careers as starters like Geno Smith, Mark Sanchez and Dave Brown.

On the whole, quarterbacks are throwing fewer interceptions today. The league average interception rate this season is 2.3 percent. When Dickey came close to the 30-30 mark in 1983, it was 4.4 percent. When Bradshaw led the Steelers to the Super Bowl in 1979, it was 4.6 percent.

All that goes to show that not only is Winston’s potential 30-30 season rare in this time or any other, but it would take a unique set of circumstances to be duplicated.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard