TAMPA — Jameis Winston’s very first NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown in a loss to the Titans and Marcus Mariota. His last pass for the Bucs was also a pick-six in a walk-off defeat in overtime to the Falcons.
There is no escaping that sardonic symmetry.
Turnovers are Winston’s biggest flaw as a quarterback. Those throws are now laid bare as bookends to five seasons in Tampa Bay that were equal parts terrific and tragic.
“There’s so much good and so much outright terrible," is how Bucs coach Bruce Arians described Winston’s tenure with the Bucs.
At his final news conference with the team, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft was determined and defiant.
Having become the first NFL player to throw at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season, Winston still insisted he could become the best who ever played the position if he eliminated the obvious.
“You look at my numbers, I’m ballin’," Winston said. “I got to stop giving the ball to the other team. I’m focused on how I can get better. Because I know if I eliminate those, I’m going to be the best. That’s bar none. You better check your sheet."
The sheet says Winston left the Bucs as their all-time passing leader in yards (19,737) and touchdowns (121). He is second only to Vinny Testaverde in interceptions (112-88), but the former Miami star played six seasons in Tampa Bay, one more than Winston.
Now more than a week into free agency, Winston is a talent without a team.
The starting jobs have all gone to other quarterbacks. Tom Brady took Winston’s position with the Bucs. Ryan Tannehill got four years, $118 million to return to the Titans. The Saints’ Teddy Bridgewater signed a three-year, $63 million contract with the Panthers. The Chargers’ Philip Rivers went to the Colts on a one-year, $25 million deal.
How did another first-round quarterback fail to make it to a second contract with the Bucs?
Let’s begin with the end.
Devotion, then doubt
When Arians arrived, his charge was to salvage what was left of Winston’s career.
Lovie Smith and Dirk Koetter had both failed. But Arians was the self-proclaimed quarterback whisperer with an elite list of quarterbacks he had coached: Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer.
Immediately, he took pressure off Winston. He didn’t want him looking over his shoulder, the way he had when Ryan Fitzpatrick got off to a torrid start in 2018 while Winston was serving a three-game suspension after a league-investigated sexual assault allegation by an Arizona Uber driver following his rookie year.
Blaine Gabbert, initially tabbed the backup, was injured in the preseason, leaving 30-year-old Ryan Griffin, who at that point had never taken an NFL regular-season snap, as the No. 2.
Ultimately, that may have been the wrong approach with Winston, but the Bucs ownership really wanted to give him every chance to prove he should remain their quarterback before becoming a free agent.
At the start of the season, Arians spent a lot of time assigning blame to players other than Winston. Arians didn’t want Bucs players to simply accept that the reason they were losing games was because their quarterback couldn’t protect the football. Everyone needed to play better around him. Receivers were called out for poor routes, as were offensive linemen or running backs who allowed Winston to be pressured.
But it seemed a bit disingenuous when Arians alibied for Winston after he had six turnovers — five interceptions, one lost fumble — in an embarrassing 37-26 loss against Carolina in London. Those are long flights to England — 10 hours each way — and coaches do a lot of talking and evaluating. A game like that can be hard to bounce back from. But Winston wasn’t benched.
When play resumed two weeks later at Tennessee, Winston had a first-quarter snap from center go off his face mask for a fumble, and the Titans scored easily on the ensuing drive. Then he threw an interception that led to another Titans score and a 14-3 deficit in a game the Bucs lost 27-23 to fall to 2-5.
It was about that time that Arians approached his assistant coaches asking whether he should bench Winston. Ten turnovers in two games, no matter whose fault they were, and three straight losses will do that.
But after some discussion, they all wanted Winston to get a full season under Arians and see if he could turn it around.
Highs, then more lows
There’s no arguing that the Bucs’ defense wasn’t just bad, it was historically bad during much of Winston’s stay. Then again, Winston consistently put the defense in a bad place with 112 points off his turnovers last season. That includes an NFL-record seven interceptions returned for touchdowns, four on the first series of the game in 2019.
Tampa Bay also didn’t have even an average running game to take some of the pressure off the passing game.
Keeping the faith in Winston paid off when he went throw-to-throw with Russell Wilson in a shootout at Seattle on Nov. 3. He passed for 335 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the 40-34 loss. Rookie cornerback Jamel Dean was beaten for three scores. Alas, 2-6.
Then Winston caught fire. Suddenly, rookie defensive backs like Dean and Sean Murphy Bunting grew up. Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for 19 sacks in the final 10 games. The Bucs won five of their next six, including four in a row.
Despite not having receivers Mike Evans, and losing Chris Godwin in the game at Detroit, things clicked for Winston even while playing with a broken thumb. He passed for 456 yards and four touchdowns in a win over the Colts and followed that up with a 458-yard, four-touchdown performance in a win at Detroit.
“I hope I helped myself," Winston said, “because I definitely want to be here in Tampa."
The Bucs kicked both the Texans and the Falcons all over the field in Tampa the next two weeks but somehow lost both games. Rookie place-kicker Matt Gay missed three field goals in the finale. Winston combined to throw six interceptions down the stretch. It was the last straw for Arians.
“I think it was that regression in those last two ballgames after he had made so much progress," Arians said. “You don’t throw for 5,100 and (33) touchdowns and not have any talent. Those numbers are amazing in themselves. Those turnovers in December made us look to see if there was something better behind Door No. 2. We owed that to our owners and the rest of our football team to see, not thinking it was going to be Tom Brady.”
Arians and his assistants took about two weeks off following the season. He believed the Bucs should have won 10 or 11 games.
The staff met and each gave his opinion of Winston. Byron Leftwich and Clyde Christensen were good with bringing him back for 2020 to see what he could do in a second year under Arians. Palmer’s interceptions went from 22 in 2013, his first year under Arians, to .62 per game over his next 58 starts.
But Arians wanted to replace Winston and wasn’t mincing words. He saw the rare free agent quarterback class that included Brady and wanted to see what was “behind Door No. 2.”
By the time Arians arrived at the NFL scouting combine, he was calling Winston an “unknown quantity.”
When asked if there was a quarterback he would pick the phone up for, he answered quickly: “Tom Brady.”
The priority list was established. Brady would be the primary target. After that it was Bridgewater, then Winston.
“(Winston) didn’t work out for us only because Tom Brady was available," Arians said. “And we had Teddy Bridgewater if that wouldn’t have worked out. If not, we were going back full steam with Jameis."
A bare market
Winston and his representatives may have overplayed their hand. There were always going to be more quarterbacks than starting jobs. When reports surfaced that Winston wanted $30 million per year, agent Joel Segal declined an opportunity to shoot it down.
Regardless, Winston is beloved by Bucs coaches, players and staff. He’s passionate about football, works hard and will do anything to win. He’s tough as hell and played through multiple injuries, including a sprained right throwing shoulder, a torn meniscus in his right knee and a broken thumb on his right hand.
He is charismatic and generous in donating his time and money to build technology centers in elementary schools located in underprivileged areas of Tampa Bay.
He is 26. He and fiancée Breion Allen have a son who will turn 2 in July. As late as March 16, when the Bucs were contacting Brady’s agent, Donald Yee, Winston was having lunch with a Bucs assistant coach.
Winston has a few things going against him right now. He is coming off several surgical procedures and teams may want to have him take a thorough physical, which is difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. He is a quarterback, a team leader, so they may want to meet with him personally to see where his head is at.
There are no starting jobs available and the way the market has settled, he will play for less than half of the $21 million he earned last season.
One coach has described Winston as a “slow twitch guy at a quick twitch position.” He holds onto the football too long and should learn how to give up on some plays.
Winston is right when he says he has to stop giving the football away. And teams are checking his sheet.
So far, they don’t like what they see.