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Don’t freak out, but Jameis Winston may be the Bucs’ best bet

John Romano | Combine Winston’s low cost and high upside, and he might make more sense to replace Tom Brady than other contenders.
The last time we saw Jameis Winston with Tampa Bay, he was trying to defend his 2019 season after throwing a pick-six in overtime against the Falcons in the season finale. After spending two years in New Orleans, it might be time to consider bringing Winston back home.
The last time we saw Jameis Winston with Tampa Bay, he was trying to defend his 2019 season after throwing a pick-six in overtime against the Falcons in the season finale. After spending two years in New Orleans, it might be time to consider bringing Winston back home. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Feb. 2|Updated Feb. 3

TAMPA — David Lee Roth eventually went back to Van Halen.

Sean Connery once returned to James Bond and Billy Martin went back to the Yankees, again and again.

So why can’t Jameis Winston come back to Tampa Bay?

I’m not trying to be controversial or cute. This is a serious query and, I would assume, a topic of serious discussion in the Bucs’ front office.

In the wake of Tom Brady’s retirement, the Bucs find themselves at a unique crossroads. They still have enough talent to potentially contend, but don’t have enough salary cap space to splurge.

That means balancing their resources between retaining their own free agents, while also trying to find a quarterback who can take them deep into the playoffs. That’s not a simple equation.

There are plenty of names floating around, but not a lot of natural fits.

Aaron Rodgers? Even if the Packers were willing to let him go to an NFC team, the cost in salary and draft picks would be extreme.

Russell Wilson? See Rodgers, Aaron.

Kyle Trask? Fans love young, unproven quarterbacks. Head coaches hate them. Months after being hired in Arizona, Bruce Arians and the Cardinals traded for 33-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer. One year after being hired in Tampa Bay, Arians and the Bucs signed 42-year-old Tom Brady. If Trask is the quarterback, I’d be surprised if Arians is still the coach.

Teddy Bridgewater? The Bucs had interest in Bridgewater two years ago, but his star has since faded. If he leaves Denver — he’s a free agent — he will be on his fifth team in six years.

Deshaun Watson? He might be able to buy his way out of his legal problems in Houston, but he’s still looking at a potential NFL suspension.

Jimmy Garoppolo? Oddsmakers in Vegas seem to love this idea. Garoppolo is limited, but he’s got a proven record when healthy. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan is 35-16 with Garoppolo in the starting lineup and 8-28 without him.

Kirk Cousins? Carson Wentz? Ryan Tannehill? Eeny meeny miny, and I’ll let you add your own Moe. Between them, they have more than 20 seasons in the NFL as starters and a combined three playoff wins. They’re solid, but pretty expensive for what they bring to the party.

Has Jameis Winston gotten over his penchant for ill-advised passes while spending two years in New Orleans?
Has Jameis Winston gotten over his penchant for ill-advised passes while spending two years in New Orleans? [ DERICK HINGLE | Associated Press ]

Which means we’re now sneaking glances in Winston’s direction, and hoping nobody notices.

But if you take away the big-name, longshot acquisitions (Rodgers, Wilson and Watson), Winston may have the highest upside of the group.

Maybe he doesn’t have the steadiness of Tannehill or the passer rating of Cousins, but Winston has the talent to put 30 points on the board every week and I’m not sure if those other guys do.

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Plus, he’s still only 28, wouldn’t cost the Bucs draft picks or a huge salary and walks in the door with an obvious familiarity with Tampa Bay’s playbook and personnel.

Would it be awkward? Maybe in the short term, but that could be overcome. Winston may have left with a bad taste in his mouth, but he didn’t drive off with any bridges burning in his rearview mirror. The Glazer family also seemed to have a particular fondness for Winston.

Most important of all, he seemed to have turned a corner in New Orleans.

Granted, the sample size was small. He spent one year as Drew Brees’ apprentice and then started seven games in 2021 before a knee injury against the Bucs ended his season.

Winston had 14 touchdown passes with only three interceptions while compiling a career-high 102.8 rating. The Saints did not ask him to do too much, but that’s almost a point in his favor.

The problem in Tampa Bay was that he was constantly making ill-advised passes, and he seemed willing to address that weakness while in New Orleans.

It’s hard to remember now, but Arians and the Bucs once had faith in Winston. Through 14 weeks in 2019, he was averaging 327 passing yards per game, had thrown 30 touchdowns and the Bucs had a 7-7 record. Then came the disastrous final two losses with the six interceptions.

The 2019 season wasn't all bad for coach Bruce Arians, right, and the Bucs with Jameis Winston at the helm.
The 2019 season wasn't all bad for coach Bruce Arians, right, and the Bucs with Jameis Winston at the helm. [ MARK LOMOGLIO | Associated Press (2019) ]

You could argue that Bridgewater is a safer choice, but Pro Football Focus ranked Winston as the more attractive free agent. You could point out that Garoppolo has some nice qualities and might not cost too much in a trade, but there’s a reason San Francisco is looking to move on after he almost took the 49ers to his second Super Bowl.

Look, I doubt it will happen. Even if there are downsides, there are still a lot of other names out there that Tampa Bay could pursue.

But if the Bucs aren’t afraid to take a big swing, Winston could be their guy. He may, at the same time, provide the highest upside at the lowest cost.

That’s a hard combination to walk away from.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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