Jameis Winston is expected to sign with the New Orleans Saints.
The question we’re tackling today is: after five years in the league, is it too soon to talk about his legacy?
Winston’s football career is best analogized with a rollercoaster, so I guess it should be no surprise he landed in Tampa Bay when he was drafted out of Florida State in 2015. Like the SheiKra at Busch Gardens, Winston’s career has been full of highs, lows, twists and turns, and sudden starts and stops. Just when you think you have a firm grasp on the handle, he throws you upside down and around in a loop.
But the thrill and fun that usually accompanies rollercoasters was hard to find in Winston’s time in Tampa. Not that Winston wasn’t exciting to watch — he was arguably the most entertaining player in the NFL. What Winston’s play and his time in Tampa really embodied was the adrenaline rush without the endorphins; the anxiety that lives in the pit of your stomach just before the big drop.
For a franchise that had never signed a drafted quarterback to a second contract, Winston was supposed to provide stability. Wildly talented, Winston had won the coveted Heisman Trophy as a freshman while leading the Seminoles to an undefeated season and a national championship. On the field that season there was nothing but dopamine. Even during the undefeated regular season in 2014 it was easy to dismiss the weekly anxiety — sometimes directly Winston’s fault with early turnovers — as FSU somehow pulled out comeback after comeback in thrilling fashion.
The second half against Notre Dame still remains one of the great college quarterback performances I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile in Tampa, it was the opposite. The Buccaneers would only win two games that season and hadn’t won double-digit games since 2010. They hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2007.
Fast forward to 2020, and 2007 still remains the last time the Buccaneers have made the playoffs. The Bucs have still never signed a drafted quarterback to a second contract, choosing to let Winston walk away as they pulled a shocker by signing none other than future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. Five years ago that would be unthinkable.
What went wrong in Tampa is difficult to contextualize. It would probably be most accurate to say there’s plenty of blame and failure to go around, as the Buccaneer organization and Jameis both failed each other. The Bucs never put a good team around Winston, except perhaps the second half of his fifth and final season in the pewter and red. But by then it looked like Winston was broken.
Despite throwing for over 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns during the 2019 season Winston appeared incapable of regulating his aggression even if he wanted to, as he lost his job by also throwing a stunning 30 interceptions.
It was the culmination of four seasons of Tampa relying on Winston’s aggressive nature just to keep them in games, much less win them. Most of his time in Tampa was marked by bad coaching hires and head-scratching draft picks that resulted in poor to historically bad defenses, spotty pass protection, and no running game. Winston was often put in poor situations where his best option was to take a sack.
In the 2017 season of Hard Knocks featuring the Buccaneers, former head coach Dirk Koetter, in a response to Winston’s question about doing too much, told Winston he needed to cut the risks he takes because they ‘finally had a good defense’.
And yet the defense that season would go on to be the worst in the NFL. That season Winston had the best interception percentage of his career but the Bucs still finished 5-11 and Koetter retained defensive coordinator Mike Smith for the 2018 season.
It was all Winston could do to put the team on his back and drag them across anything resembling a finish line. But for as much as his aggression kept them in, and won, games they otherwise wouldn’t have, it was a fair but cruel arbiter; over five seasons Winston threw away his share of games the Bucs could have otherwise won.
So Winston is certainly not without fault. Ultimately, it’s up to the player to go out there and not make the mistakes, and Winston could not get it done. His first and last passes in a Buccaneer uniform being pick-sixes is not a coincidence. It would be remiss to not mention that a second sexual assault allegation from 2016 resulted in a three game suspension to start his 2018 season, a year in which Winston was essentially benched twice in favor of NFL journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick.
When Winston came back from that suspension it looked like he was again trying to do too much. 2019 under Bruce Arians offered redemption, but again, Winston couldn’t stop himself from doing too much.
So, at this point, where does Winston’s future stand? Who is Winston as a football player?
First, New Orleans makes sense for Winston. There aren’t any starting jobs available, despite the fact Winston is at least better than one-third to one-half of all NFL starting quarterbacks. Saints head coach Sean Payton is one of the best offensive minds in the game, and Drew Brees is above reproach as a player and is likely in the last year of his career. The Saints are also stacked with talent. Like Teddy Bridgewater, Winston could greatly benefit from a year spent learning and re-focusing. At a minimum, Winston could gain some knowledge and possibly resurrect his career. At best, he could become the player he seemed he was meant to be out of FSU and torture the Bucs for the next decade.
Is he a bust? It depends on how you define bust, but you could find enough evidence to argue either way. Winston has improved and developed quite a bit in the NFL, but arguably not in the ways that matter most. He has elite positive production and horrible out-of-the-league-in-two-years bad production. It’s fair to say there’s never been anyone like Jameis Winston in the NFL. If only he could limit the bad he would nearly instantly be a top 10 quarterback, and that’s probably why the Saints took a chance on him.
More than anything, Winston needs to understand and respect the leverage of defenders. Too often he either doesn’t recognize a defender’s position and body alignment relative to the route being run, or simply doesn’t care. He’s good at extending the play and buying time, but he’s bad at creating off-script.
Where Patrick Mahomes or Russell Wilson escape, find the open guy, and create magic, Winston will buy time and then panic or arrogantly throw it into quadruple coverage or directly to a linebacker. You could probably put all of that under the umbrella of Winston thinking his arm is better than it really is. Learning from a quarterback like Brees could show Winston how to play more within himself.
The leverage of the cornerback (square to the line of scrimmage and outside the receiver) should tell the quarterback to come off the route but not Jameis. Tries to throw to the sideline and when he misses inside it's a wrap. If you misread leverage, the ball better be perfect. pic.twitter.com/mFGK1Zd74D— Seth Galina (@pff_seth) January 3, 2020
That’s really it. Winston is unlikely to ever throw 30 interceptions in a season again, even if he’s largely who he is at this point. Even Arians said he believes 10-15 interceptions last season weren’t Winston’s fault. If he can limit them to 10-12 a season, Winston should still have a long and productive career in the NFL. But time is running out.
Here are some reactions around the NFL about the signing:
As the #Saints and FA QB Jameis Winston close in on a 1-year deal, worth noting Winston turned down a more lucrative offer elsewhere to learn from some of the best. The former #Bucs starter put the emphasis on his future in a smart choice.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 26, 2020
I’ll pass on the hurrahs but Jameis is one helluva competitor with untapped potential... 33/30 w/ goat tutelage— cameron jordan (@camjordan94) April 26, 2020
What I like about this situation most for Jameis Winston is that he's not going to a team where it's Bret Favre-Aaron Rodgers. Drew Brees WANTS to help younger quarterbacks. I've talked to Brees about it before. One of the reasons he goes to the Pro Bowl every year: to pass it on— JennaLaineESPN (@JennaLaineESPN) April 26, 2020
I like this move the @Saints made this morning. Jameis under Sean and with drew seems like a really good situation for Winston right now.— Jermon Bushrod (@j_bushrod7475) April 26, 2020
This is the first time in NFL history two QBs on the same roster have thrown for 5,000 yards.— Brenden Ertle (@BrendenErtle) April 26, 2020
Drew Brees has done it 5 times
Jameis Winston threw for 5,109 yards