TAMPA, Fla. -– If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season opener against the San Francisco 49ers is any indication, new head coach Bruce Arians -- aka the “Quarterback Whisperer” -- has his work cut out for him in solving the riddle that is Jameis Winston in a "make-or-break" fifth year for the quarterback.
Up until this season, Winston had been afforded the benefit of stability -- a rarity in today’s NFL, especially for a franchise that’s had one winning season in the last eight years. Winston had the luxury of the same offensive playcaller in Dirk Koetter and the same quarterbacks coach in Mike Bajakian for four years. By comparison, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was drafted second overall behind Winston in the 2015 NFL draft, is on his fourth offensive coordinator and fifth playcaller in five seasons.
Every move the Bucs organization has made up until this point has been done with Winston in mind -- holding onto Koetter and promoting him to head coach and parting ways with Lovie Smith because they felt Koetter’s work with Winston was too important, then firing Koetter and luring Arians out of retirement because if he can’t ultimately spell Winston, who can?
Arians understands that so much of this year is about building Winston back up after his confidence was shaken from being benched for the first time in his career last season. But as Arians said in a conversation with ESPN last week about Andrew Luck, "He saved that franchise [the Indianapolis Colts] when he came in there." Franchise quarterbacks and first overall draft picks are supposed to carry the weight of their teams.
“That’s been said many, many times,” Arians said Monday. “I don’t think I need to repeat it [to Winston]. Y’all repeat it all the time so doesn’t have to be told too many more times."
The Bucs have surrounded Winston with all the support he needs, including an all-star cast of coaches -- Arians, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich (who spent 10 years in the NFL as a quarterback), QB coach Clyde Christensen and consultant Tom Moore (who has a Hall of Fame résumé even if he's not in the Hall). And now they may just have a formidable defense under coordinator Todd Bowles if they keep this up. If things don't work now, when will they?
Winston finished Sunday’s game 20-of-36 for 194 passing yards, one touchdown, three interceptions -- two of them pick-sixes -- and a passer rating of 45.4. He also fumbled the ball twice. But even those numbers don’t tell the full, ugly story.
The first interception on first-and-10 over the middle wasn’t a poor throw per se -- it bounced out of O.J. Howard’s hands. But the second and third picks, which put 14 points on the board and were the difference-makers in a 31-17 loss, were mistakes a fifth-year quarterback should not be making, new system or not. These weren’t difficult throws. They weren’t asking him to do too much.
On second-and-13 in the third quarter, 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman was matched up against running back Peyton Barber on a hitch route. While Arians said Monday that Barber was three yards too deep on his route, and Winston hadn’t actually overthrown him based on the play that was called,Winston should have never even looked Barber’s way on the play to begin with, even with Evans missing his hot read. Instead, Sherman returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.
Then in the fourth quarter, down by one touchdown with 2:10 to go, Winston stumbled backward and tried to throw a screen pass when he should have thrown it away or taken a sack by Dee Ford and lived to see another down.
"He could have thrown a quick out to the other side," Arians said. "But that is usually in a hot situation. Our running back, young running back, goes inside and doesn’t get out on the screen. So throw it away. He was attempting to throw it away, I think."
“You hate that. You’d think a screen is a safe call on first down and it ends up biting ya -- you never want to end the game like that,” Arians said. “It’s knowing where to throw the ball away. We ran the tight end across [the formation]. We ran the screen -- there’s no receivers on this side. So you’ve gotta throw it at his feet … you’ve just gotta dart it and hope you don’t get another grounding call. But yeah, you’ve gotta know to throw it in the dirt.”
There were other plays that came within an inch of disaster as well. In the first quarter, linebacker Kwon Alexander dropped an easy pick. Then in the fourth quarter, Arians went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line and Winston was nearly picked off by Tarvarius Moore on a pass intended for Chris Godwin.
"I loved the play. I think they actually busted coverage and it surprised them, but he threw the ball late," Arians said. "It was just the execution of it with two guys in a situation that we haven’t seen before."
Unfortunately for Bucs fans, this is something they’ve seen before with Winston -- a maddening cycle of expectations and disappointment, expectations and disappointment.