TAMPA — I once heard a baseball general manager describe one of his own players this way:
“He’s just good enough to really hurt us.’’
The point was the player was productive enough to avoid being replaced, but not special enough to put a franchise over the top. And so the team risked spinning its wheels for years without ever really advancing anywhere.
After three coaches and five seasons, that’s where the Bucs are with Jameis Winston. And based on what coach Bruce Arians has said the past two days, it’s beginning to sound like they’re finally thinking about moving on.
“Stay tuned,’’ Arians said Monday.
Two weeks ago, I would have sworn the Bucs had convinced themselves that a corner had been turned. After a disastrous season-opener, Tampa Bay had gone 7-6 and Winston was averaging 337 yards a game during that stretch with 29 touchdowns. He was still throwing too many interceptions, but it seemed he was trending in the right direction.
Then came the four-interception debacle against Houston. That was followed by the inexcusable pick-six in overtime against Atlanta. And, suddenly, doubt had been re-introduced to the conversation.
It was as if Arians was finally seeing the entire picture. What he thought was improvement was just a temporary reprieve. He hadn’t transformed Winston. In some ways, he had given him the freedom to be even more volatile than ever before.
This is who Winston is. He teases, and then he disappoints. It’s been that way for five years.
“It’s frustrating,’’ Arians said. “To see the growth was great. To see the regression in some areas was very frustrating.’’
Arians has repeatedly said no decision has been made on Winston’s future in Tampa Bay. That a top-to-bottom evaluation will be conducted.
But it’s clear Arians believes the Bucs are capable of reaching the playoffs in 2020. Heck, he thinks this year’s team should have made the playoffs.
And there was very little equivocation when Arians talked about other positions. He loves the defensive front seven. He’s excited about the potential of the secondary. The offensive line was dependable, and the wide receivers might be the best group in the NFL. Even slumping kicker Matt Gay got a free pass.
That makes his lack of commitment to Winston seem like a sly way of blaming the quarterback for a losing record.
“It’s a performance-based business,’’ he said.
Eventually, it had to come to this moment. Arians could not preach accountability to 50-some players while giving his quarterback a free pass. And that’s what much of this season had to feel like for other players in the locker room.
It’s bad enough for a quarterback to lead the league in interceptions. But lapping the field is intolerable.
Here’s another way of looking at it:
If he was simply an average quarterback, Winston would have thrown 14 interceptions this year instead of 30.
Let’s pause to appreciate that. The typical NFL quarterback threw an interception 2.3 percent of the time. Winston was at 4.8 percent. In the past quarter-century, he is the only full-time starter to have an interception ratio that was more than double the league average.
Repetitive mistakes, is what Arians called it.
A reason to move on, is what it sounded like.
When asked if he was concerned about a potential learning curve if a new quarterback was brought in next season, Arians was practically dismissive. He could win with a new quarterback, he said. He could win with Winston.
It’s just a question of deciding who he would prefer.
“What’s behind door number two? That’s the first question,’’ he said. “As you evaluate for the draft, that’s another question. Are they better than what you have? And then you evaluate, and that’s when you make your decision.’’
It’s a decision that needs to be based on conviction rather than fear. In other words, you don’t keep Winston because you’re worried he’s going to become a star somewhere else. You keep him because you believe he’s the best quarterback available for Tampa Bay in 2020.
And, if it comes to that, it’s entirely possible Winston will find success elsewhere. He’s got that much talent, and there will always be some coach who believes he’s just the guru Winston needs.
Eleven months ago, Arians believed he was that coach.
On Monday, he sounded far less sure.
And it was clear those doubts had more to do with Winston’s ability to play quarterback than Arians’ ability to coach.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.