Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Bucs beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
Five years ago they were the can’t miss prospects in the class. Entering the 2015 NFL Draft, the teams picking at the top had a treat. If you get one sure-fire quarterback in a draft pool, you’re happy. But two? And at the caliber of these players? It was a win-win. You couldn’t go wrong.
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota; the NFL had been waiting a long time to get their hands on these guys. As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Winston set the world on fire. In his first year as a full-time starter, he was the best in college football. He threw for 40 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions, won some of the biggest games the sport had to offer, including a National Championship, and won the Heisman Trophy that season. On the other side, we hadn’t seen an assassin in the pocket like Marcus Mariota in a long time. In his three years as a starter, Mariota threw for 105 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. His QBR was 171 for his career, and he, too, was a Heisman Trophy winner in 2014 one year after Winston.
As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tennessee Titans were set to kick off the 2015 NFL Draft, there was hardly any pressure in terms of which position to pick. Sure, there was a lot that had to go into choosing between Winston and Mariota, but it was like a choosing between rib eye and filet, a Benz and an Audi, Michael Jordan or LeBron James. You could argue forever — there were plenty of pros on each side — but in the end both were great. You couldn’t lose.
Fast forward to 2019 and not only did one of these teams lose, we’re now getting dangerously close to saying both did.
Marcus Mariota was benched at halftime this week for Ryan Tannehill, a move that certainly puts into motion that the Titans are going to be looking for a new franchise quarterback next offseason. The Bucs didn’t bench Winston this week — though they have before — but his six-turnover performance was one of the worst days we’ve seen from him in a Buccaneers uniform, and that, unfortunately, is saying a lot.
We’re a long way from 2015. Have both of these quarterbacks improved? I would say they have. They are better than when they came into the league. But the injuries around Mariota really set him back, something he was never able to recover from, physically or mentally. He is no longer the automatic assassin we saw at Oregon, and instead makes the small things look difficult. And for Winston, his downfall is that his superman complex, one that made him a hero at Florida State, has now (ironically) become his biggest kryptonite.
Three head coaches, even more offensive coordinators and even more quarterbacks coaches; each has brought their own twists and tactics to teaching the position in hopes of finally getting through to Winston in a way that allows him to take the next step so many believe he has within him. These many teachers have certainly all taught Winston different tricks and different styles (which can become a negative with limited continuity). But from all of them there has likely been one common lesson that continues to be taught to this day.
“You don’t have to be Superman.”
It’s safe to say that for as long as Winston has been playing football he’s been one of the best if not the best players on the field. In high school he was dominant, in college he was dominant, and even in the NFL, when he’s at his best, he’s shown flashes of Top 10 QB talent. Going back to his roots, Winston has been leaned on to be “the man.” Certainly his talent has something to do with it. But the quarterback position is also a natural spot for eyes and ears to rest on and look towards when a play needs to be made. Winston puts a lot of pressure on himself to be the one to make such plays. He did in high school. He did in college. But he doesn’t do it nearly enough in the NFL for the very reason of he works his hardest to achieve them.
Winston wants to win. The desire to win keeps him up at night. It’s what causes him to be in the building before anyone else each morning. It’s what made him the choice at No. 1 all those year ago over Mariota. He’s starving for it. That has never been in question. But at what point does the costs part of “winning at all costs” start to become the approach to winning itself?
I would argue that point is right now, and it’s been present for a long time.
A big reason why Bucs head coach Bruce Arians came out of retirement to this Tampa Bay team was because of Jameis Winston. He loved Winston’s talent and his fire, and Arians thought he could fix Winston with those cornerstones of character in place. But if this were a movie, Dirk Koetter would be playing the role of Red Skull in Avengers: Infinity War where he is talking to Thanos about obtaining the soul stone. Thanos thinks he has what it takes to get the stone; Arians thought he knew what it would take to change Winston. In the words of Koetter as Red Skull: “We all think that at first. We are all wrong.”
Winston becoming the franchise quarterback he was drafted to be isn’t going to cost a soul, but it is going to cost an identity. Winton has to let his Superman complex die — a request I am not sure he can adhere to. There are times when Winston wants to make the play so bad he doesn’t, and not only does he not, he often makes things worse. Every coach who has come through Tampa Bay has talked about not wanting to coach the gunslinger out of Winston, and yet they require him to not be Superman about plays. I’m starting to wonder if such a middle ground even exists in Winston.
This past Sunday Jameis Winston threw his 100th touchdown pass. He is the only Buccaneers player to do so, and is only the fifth quarterback to ever do so by age 25 or younger. He has the most completions, the most passing yards and the most passing touchdowns in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history. His name already claims the top spots on many of the pages of the franchise’s record books, all before his second contract. And yet if he’s not careful, his name, like every quarterback’s name that has come before him in Tampa, will fail to get a second contract.
Winston’s six turnovers on Sunday were the most in a single NFL game since 2016. He now has five games with four or more turnovers since 2015. No other player has more than two such games. He has the second most turnovers in the league since the start of the 2018 season.
The problem isn’t that Winston won’t stop turning the ball over. The problem is that he can’t seem to help it.
The Bucs O-Line was terrible on Sunday, but Winston didn’t help them. The secondary has been terrible for years, but that doesn’t take away Winston’s blunders. The coaching staffs haven’t been what the team thought they would be before. But now they have a proven winner — proven winners — all across the staff, and they can’t seem to make it stop.
I am not saying that Winston is void of talent. That is clearly not the case. Just look at what he did in the middle of their first six games. He was fantastic. But what I am saying is that it is getting more and more obvious that at some point, Superman Winston will come back, and ironically that is this team’s kryptonite. Winston wasn’t the only reason why they lost last week, but he was a reason. And that’s been his story since 2015.
The longer they do this the more it becomes clear that Winston’s 2013 season at Florida State was an outlier. Since then he’s been unreliable. Don’t get me wrong. At times he’s been stellar, and they’ve won because of it. But of all you know about Winston, can he ever string those games along long enough for it to matter?
You could see it on Arians’ face on the sidelines this past weekend. He knows this is going to be tougher than he thought. Winston has helped this team ascend in many moments. But he is also what holds them back. That’s reality. Can you win a Super Bowl with that? Time and patience to answer that question is running out.
On Monday, Arians was asked if this week’s game changes whether or not he believes Winston can be a franchise quarterback.
“No. I look at the reasons why, what happened, and if it happens again, yeah, it’ll concern the hell out of me.”
Sunday wasn’t the first time, Bruce.
Sunday was the “again.”