Written by Andy Moore ( @AJMoore21 )
Going into last season, the end appeared to be approaching for Jameis Winston in Tampa. Suspended for three games, with growing concerns about his decision making, the former Heisman Trophy winner had a lot to prove.
What had started out with so much promise (a Pro-Bowl call up and Offensive Rookie of the Year honours in 2015) was beginning to bottom out fast. Despite the work of the Buccaneers Front Office to surround him with receiving threats, Winston found it all too easy to put the ball in the hands of the opposite defensive backs (44 times in his first three seasons).
These accuracy woes clearly left a scar on former Head Coach, Dirk Koetter, who recently remarked that he had taken Matt Ryan’s accuracy for granted during his first spell as the Falcons Offensive Coach.
It’s fair to say that this concern had a vocal section of the Buccs fan base calling for change.
Well, change has come on the west coast of Florida, Koetter and his staff were shown the door and everyone’s favourite All or Nothing star, Bruce Arians, was brought in to steer the ship. So where does that leave Jameis going into the final year of his rookie deal?
It’s clear that Winston was a huge draw for Arians, one of the very first things he said on taking this job was, ‘The whole thing is going to be built around him (Winston).’ Adding, ‘I think he can win it all, he has the intelligence, the toughness… to lead a team.’ High praise to heap on a QB before a single team training session together.
The pedigree Arians brings is undoubted, under his stewardship Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethilsberger have all gone to pro-bowls, with the latter winning two super bowls in the progress. A former quarterback himself, Arians prides himself on building meaningful relationships with and bringing the best out of his signal callers, so much so that he’s literally written a book on it.
If ever we needed an example of his work we need look no further that Carson Palmer in Arizona. Prior to 2013, Palmer had largely failed to live up his status as the first overall pick, he had bounced from Cincinnati to Oakland and finally arrived in Arizona, ten years into his career, the same summer as Arians. The improvement in his game was immediately apparent, Palmer enjoyed his then best season as a pro, passing for 4274 yards and leading the Cardinals to a 10-6 record. The best was still to come, a 13-3 record in 2015 took Arizona tantalisingly close to a Super Bowl and Palmer himself to the Pro-Bowl for the first time in 9 years with 4671 yards and 35 TDs.
All this gives the inkling that Arians knows what he is doing. Indeed, he’s already put on record that he thinks Jameis simply needs to slightly adjust some of the mechanics and we’ll see a big difference in his play.
Coach and player already have a good relationship as well, in Middle School Winston attended QB camps run by Arians and his son, with the coach inspiring the ambitious youngster to set himself the goal of reaching a Super Bowl.
Perhaps most importantly, the offense that Arians runs just seems like a natural fit for Winston. Based on aggression and risk taking, the go to play in Arians’ arsenal is the downfield shot, something that the Buccs sometimes seemed nervous to call under Koetter’s stewardship. This clearly plays to Jameis’ strengths, with his arm power and ability to escape pressure in the pocket amongst the best in the league.
It’s exciting to see a coach so enthused by his own player, and it feels like the chemistry is already bubbling between Winston and Arians, if they can improve the consistency of play then surely the sky is the limit… which brings us to:
Jameis himself must know this is a make or break season. Come in red hot and ready to play and he scores himself a smoking contract extension and a year-round ticket to Disney, just up the road. However, throw a few ill placed picks in the first couple of games and the pressure to dump him at the end of the year will only ramp up.
That being said, it’s easily arguable that Winston developed significantly at the end of the 2018 campaign. After coming in for a rather dismal performance to replace interim starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick, in game four at Chicago, Winston gave a blistering 395 yard, 4 TD performance in Atlanta in week five. But it’s the last six games of the season we should really look at, in those games he only threw three interceptions, with two of those on do or die Hail Mary shots. It was a noticeable improvement, and the Bucs were unlucky to go down in a few of those games by close margins.
If Arians can tweak the issues he saw in his QB’s mechanics then the evidence suggests we could be about to see some fireworks in the NFC South.
Of course, it’s vitally important that there are no more off the field incidents as well. The suspension Winston served last year came after allegations were made that he groped an uber driver on a night out, all the more worrying after sexual assault claims followed him from FSU. Although not charged in either incident, these are both clear red flags on his record and it’s easy to see how one more incident will see the end of Tampa’s relationship with their QB1.
The work effort of any NFL player is of course vital, even more so in recent years, with every Instagram story, Twitter post or interview scrutinised with a fine-tooth comb for a speck of juicy gossip. And it appears Winston is a strong example to his teammates in that regard, with his new Head Coach praising him for being ‘first in, last out’ in recent weeks. If he keeps that attitude up it’ll clearly inspire those around him.
The Supporting Cast
On any given Sunday last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could line up with any of Mike Evans, Desean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, OJ Howard and Cameron Brate as receiving options. It’s not hard to see why people were excited about the power of that offense.
Now, a year later they’ve lost Jackson and Humphries, with Godwin really stepping into the WR2 position just as Jameis started to perform at the end of the 2018 campaign. Adding only Scott Miller in the 6th round of this year’s draft might seem like a risk, but Tampa never seem to struggle when uncovering young receiving talent.
Alongside the WRs and TEs, Winston has another potential gem in Ronald Jones to work with. It’d be easy to write Jones off already after he barely made it onto the field in 2018, but all the noise coming out of OTAs so far suggest that he’s set for a much bigger role in the offense this year. That could help Winston no end, with Koetter choosing to abandon the run game all to often last year, exposing Winston to deeper defensive sets and with them more opportunities to throw a pick.
Arians has also emphasised improvement on the other side of the ball, with former Jets Head Coach, Todd Bowles brought into to improve one of the NFL’s most haphazard defences. The recent addition of Ndamukong Suh and a stack of defensive talent, including Devin White, in the draft will undoubtedly make Bowles’ job easier. This will also help Winston, who all too often throughout his Tampa career has been forced to get involved in a shootout due to other teams racking up the score.
I’m all too aware that the above is a very positive take on Winston’s surroundings as he enters his contract year, but I think the Buccaneers staff realise that their own success is heavily intertwined with his. That’s why one of the criteria they looked for in candidates was a willingness to take Winston forward, and why General Manager, Jason Licht, chose to make the last gasp decision to rid the organisation of Koetter before Jameis entered this all important season.
If, and it’s a big if with all the talent in the NFC South, all the stars align, I’m going to stick my head out and say Jameis Winston finishes the year in the top three NFL QBs for passing yardage and TDs thrown, and he takes the Buccs to at least a 10-6 record for the first time since 2010.