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Bucs QB Jameis Winston's next hurdle is one that decides games

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) calls a play during the first quarter of a preseason game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) calls a play during the first quarter of a preseason game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016.
Published Dec. 31, 2016

TAMPA — For all the development Jameis Winston has demonstrated, he has a lot more growing to do, particularly when it comes to protecting the football.

His 17 interceptions and five fumbles lost are the most turnovers by an NFC quarterback.

Every giveaway has its own story. A receiver runs the wrong route. A blocking assignment is missed. A bad play call. A Hail Mary intercepted at the end of the game.

But if you're looking for an area where Winston and the Bucs have to be better to take the next step, this is it. The Bucs don't want to coach the competitiveness out of Winston, but he has to learn to play smarter.

"I think Jameis is continuing to get better as he gains experience," coach Dirk Koetter said. "But is he where we all want him to be or where we need him to be for us to be where we all want the Bucs to be? He's probably not quite there yet."

The Bucs are 7-1 in games when they have more takeaways this season, 1-5 when they don't and 0-1 when it's even.

"Well, as a team, we've turned it over too much," Koetter said. "And not all interceptions are the quarterback's fault, some are more than others. I just think that's an ongoing lesson that they have to learn, and that's why … (Patriots QB) Tom Brady has two interceptions all year and (is) still playing quarterback at 100 years old. So, that's just an ongoing battle."

Winston probably overachieved this season despite the fact that it's unlikely the Bucs will make the playoffs. Consider that about 70 percent of his touchdown passes were to Mike Evans (11) and Cameron Brate (eight), who is out today with a back injury.

Without a consistent running game or the development of an off receiver, Winston was left to force some throws to those receivers.

"Are there moments that his competitive spirit gets the best of him?" offensive coordinator Todd Monken asked. "Wanting to make every play, wanting to be competitive, that part of it is something that I think he's even improved on and I think we've improved in a lot of areas, receiver-wise, with the drops and being in the right spots. So, what helps with that? Playing good football around him. Winning, so you're not having to throw and be from behind, so you're feeling like you've got to make certain plays."

BLEAK STREAK: Unless DT Gerald McCoy has three sacks today of the Panthers' Cam Newton, the Bucs will conclude their 11th straight season without having a player with at least 10 sacks. Simeon Rice was the last to do it (14 in 2005). Entering today, 13 NFL players have double-digit sacks, and five need a sack or half sack to be added to that list.

HIRING SEASON: Black Monday will be here soon. Already, there are head coaching vacancies with the Rams, Jaguars and Bills. There could be more openings, perhaps in San Diego or San Francisco, and there's always a surprise (such as Lovie Smith last year).

Bucs defensive coordinator and former Falcons head coach Mike Smith should get some consideration. But if he doesn't land a new head coaching job, the Bucs would be better for it.

"I haven't coached as well as I've needed to," Smith said, "I truly believe that. I think I could've done a better job. Anytime you don't have the success that you want, I think you have to take a look at yourself first and I'm looking forward to playing this week and finishing off the right way and see what happens."