TAMPA — Phew, that was close. Just when it appeared the Bucs would have to decide Jameis Winston’s future by Thursday, the NFL postponed free agency-related deadlines and gave us all a reprieve.
Here’s to four more days of lives dangling in the balance.
It has been 74 days since Winston threw his record-setting seventh pick-six of the season to shut the door on 2019, and we’ve been kvetching about his future ever since. The only thing worse would be asking Iowa voters to caucus on the Jameis issue.
No more. It’s put up and shut up time.
I’ve considered the pros and cons of re-signing Winston and have come to the inescapable conclusion that the hour has arrived for the Bucs to cut the string and move on.
You see, a definitive answer is still impossible at this moment. You cannot truly make a sound decision without knowing what the rest of the landscape looks like. That’s what coach Bruce Arians was referring to when he made his caustic Door No. 2 quip last month.
Is Tom Brady really an option? How much would it cost to sign Teddy Bridgewater? Might Winston consider a one-year bridge contract and gamble that a stellar 2020 season will beget a $100 million deal? Is Andy Dalton available in trade at a reasonable cost? How about Cam Newton?
Theoretically, the Bucs are not supposed to have all those answers until the legal tampering period for free agents begins at noon on Monday but, presumably, they’ve gotten some hints through back channels.
And the fact that they have not already signed Winston to a long-term deal — and have not indicated they will put a franchise tag on him by Monday — suggests two possibilities:
1. They want to pursue a free agent next week.
2. They are gambling that when Winston hits the open market, a lack of interest will depress his contract demands in Tampa Bay.
Neither scenario indicates Arians has tremendous faith in his quarterback. He may be amenable to bringing Winston back in 2020, but it appears he is also willing to risk losing Winston if some other team offers to pay him starter’s money.
Maybe that’s just a shrewd business calculation, but it’s also a backhanded swipe at Winston’s value.
And that’s why I think it’s best to move on.
Because the Bucs do not seem confident enough in Winston to commit to him long-term. And if that’s the case, it feels like a bridge contract is only delaying the inevitable. Either offer a multi-year deal to a safer choice in free agency or sign a rental quarterback while drafting another quarterback for the future.
Bringing him back on a prove-you’re-worth-it basis does not seem like the way to go. Especially after the Bucs made sure Winston had no real competition in 2019, and Arians spent most of the season excusing his quarterback’s miscues.
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Franchise quarterbacks are rare, more rare than you probably realize. So you do not want to risk letting one slip away.
And, it’s true, Winston has a lot of the qualities you look for. He’s big, he has an instinct for ad-libbing, he’s gotten much better on the deep throws that Arians covets. But the inability to stay away from turnovers on what should be routine passes is unsettling. And you could see Arians’ frustration grow in the final weeks of the season. So, ultimately, Arians has to decide whether he believes Winston can outgrow that potentially fatal flaw.
In the end, the greatest mistake would be a decision based on fear.
You do not re-sign Winston because you’re afraid he will turn into another Doug Williams or Steve Young or Trent Dilfer, who went on to have success elsewhere. And you do not sign a Brady or a Philip Rivers because you want to energize the fan base and goose attendance.
This decision is too important to worry about perceptions or temporary concerns.
This is a choice that must be made from conviction. If you’re convinced a veteran quarterback can lead to playoff victories, then sign him. If there’s a college player with a chance to be a franchise quarterback, then figure out a way to get him.
And if you’ve decided that Winston is a boom-or-bust quarterback in the Vinny Testaverde mold, then it’s time to make the hard decision to move on.