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Jameis Winston’s Ball-Security Problems Go Beyond Interceptions

The former no. 1 pick led the NFL in passing yards last year, but there are several reasons why he’ll likely have to take a job as a backup in 2020

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jameis Winston’s last pass as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer was a pick-six. In overtime in Week 17, a Winston pass on first-and-10 was jumped by Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, who returned it for a walk-off touchdown. The score ended Tampa Bay’s regular season and Winston’s Bucs career in ignominious, appropriate fashion. The pick-six was Winston’s seventh of 2019, breaking the single-season record set by Peyton Manning in 2001. It was also Winston’s 30th interception of the season, more than he threw in his two seasons at Florida State and more than any NFL quarterback had thrown in 31 years. After the game ended, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians was asked whether the team wanted to re-sign Winston, who was set for free agency.

“There’s so much good,” Arians said. “And there’s so much outright terrible. So we’ve got to weigh that and see what happens.”

What happened was the Bucs signed Tom Brady, who reportedly pitched himself to the team. Going from Winston, who tied for third-most interceptions in a season since the merger, to Brady, a three-time MVP, is an all-time whiplash. Brady had fewer pick-sixes over the previous 10 years combined (six) than Winston had last year (seven). Hell, Brady threw eight interceptions in 2019 while Jameis threw nine interceptions in the two Buccaneers games that were announced by Rich Eisen. Brady is 16 years older than Winston, yet he is the steadier option, so Arians and general manager Jason Licht decided to let Winston leave Tampa Bay. Except, well, he hasn’t. Three weeks into free agency, the former no. 1 pick remains unsigned and is still at his house in Florida doing drills while wearing his Buccaneers helmet. It’s like he got dumped but is wearing the sweatshirt his ex gave him.

The 26-year-old former Heisman Trophy–winning no. 1 pick who led the NFL in passing yards last season is a free agent, but there is no obvious landing spot for him. The Bengals, Dolphins, and Chargers will probably draft quarterbacks later this month. The Bears traded for Nick Foles, the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater, the Jaguars seem content with Gardner Minshew II, the Colts are trying out Philip Rivers for the year, and the Patriots are apparently rolling with Jarrett Stidham. In the game of quarterback musical chairs, left standing are Winston and Cam Newton, another former Heisman-winning no. 1 pick. But Newton’s situation is complicated by his murky medical history. Winston, meanwhile, threw for 5,109 yards in 2019, but he probably will have to sign as a backup if he wants a job in 2020. It’s not hard to figure out why. Even Winston himself said at his final Bucs press conference that his issues were so obvious they didn’t need to be specified.

“We know what we’ve got to fix,” Winston said after the game. “No reason for me to be specific. [If] you look at my numbers, I’m balling. I’ve got to stop giving the ball to the other team.”

Winston leads the NFL in interceptions since 2015, but that doesn’t don’t tell the full story of his propensity for turnovers. Over the past five years, he is tied with Kirk Cousins for the lead in fumbles (50) and leads all players in lost fumbles (23). Every fumble is a small catastrophe (just ask Coach Boone) and fumble recoveries are mostly random, so we are going to focus on all fumbles, including the ones the offense recovers, to study how often a quarterback has potentially turned the ball over. Using this simple metric of fumbles and interceptions, let’s see where every quarterback with at least 50 starts ranks since 2015.

31-40 fumbles + interceptions: Tyrod Taylor
41-50: Alex Smith
51-60: Aaron Rodgers
61-70: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Case Keenum, Dak Prescott, Ryan Tannehill
71-80: Marcus Mariota, Jared Goff, Matt Stafford, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton
81-90: Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Wentz, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Russell Wilson
91-100: Derek Carr, Matt Ryan, Blake Bortles, Eli Manning
101-110: Kirk Cousins, Philip Rivers
111-120: None
121-130: None
131-140: Jameis Winston

Winston has a stunning 138 picks and fumbles combined in just 72 games. The only other players to exceed 100 combined picks and fumbles since 2015 are Rivers and Cousins, but both have played a half-season more than Winston in that time. Yet these numbers don’t even paint the full story of Winston’s turnovers—we need to translate his stats to a per-game basis to put them in context.

Reliable fumble data is available going back about 25 years; we can look at every quarterback with at least 128 pass attempts in that time (an average of eight per game for a 16-game season). Here is every QB with at least 1.8 interceptions plus fumbles per game since 1995.

QBs With At Least 1.8 Picks Plus Fumbles Per Game Since 1995

Player From Games Interceptions + Fumbles per Game
Player From Games Interceptions + Fumbles per Game
Craig Whelihan 1997-1998 19 2.3
Daniel Jones 2019-2019 13 2.3
Matt Barkley 2013-2019 14 2.2
Ryan Leaf 1998-2001 25 2.1
Kyle Allen 2018-2019 15 1.9
JAMEIS WINSTON 2015-2019 72 1.9
John Beck 2007-2011 9 1.9
DeShone Kizer 2017-2018 18 1.9
Jon Kitna 1997-2011 141 1.8
Chad Hutchinson 2002-2004 15 1.8
John Skelton 2010-2012 20 1.8
Andrew Walter 2006-2008 15 1.8
Nathan Peterman 2017-2018 8 1.8

Winston puts the ball on the ground or in the defender’s hands 1.9 times per game, the sixth-highest rate among the 203 qualified quarterbacks since 1995. Winston is looser with the ball than DeShone Kizer, who started 15 games for the 0-16 Cleveland Browns, and Nathan Peterman, the most overwhelmed NFL player of our lifetime. He is barely behind former Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf. Winston is better than the career third-stringers who litter this list, so let’s look at quarterbacks with at least 50 games played who had more than 1.5 picks plus fumbles per game.

QBs With At Least 1.5 Interceptions Plus Fumbles Per Game (Min. 50 games) Since 1995

Player From Games Interceptions + Fumbles per Game
Player From Games Interceptions + Fumbles per Game
JAMEIS WINSTON 2015-2019 72 1.9
Jon Kitna 1997-2011 141 1.8
Daunte Culpepper 1999-2009 105 1.7
Mark Sanchez 2009-2018 80 1.7
Kurt Warner* 1998-2009 125 1.7
Josh Freeman 2009-2015 62 1.7
Rex Grossman 2003-2011 54 1.6
Jay Cutler 2006-2017 153 1.6
Aaron Brooks 2000-2006 93 1.6
Jake Plummer 1997-2006 143 1.6
Blake Bortles 2014-2019 78 1.6

Winston has the most combined interceptions and fumbles per game of any starting quarterback in this generation. The players most comparable to Winston are Jon Kitna, Daunte Culpepper, Mark Sanchez, Kurt Warner, and Josh Freeman, which is a list. But Winston’s numbers are a bit skewed by the fact that he was in the first five years of his career, which are likely to be among his most turnover-prone. We also can account for how much good Winston does in the passing game by accounting for his high touchdown rate. To compare apples to apples, we can look at quarterbacks with at least 1.5 combined interceptions and fumbles per game and 1.5 touchdowns per game in the first five years of their career.

QBs With At Least 1.5 INTs Plus Fumbles Per Game and 1.5 TDs Per Game in Their First Five Seasons

Player From Games Interceptions + Fumbles per Game Touchdown Passes per Game
Player From Games Interceptions + Fumbles per Game Touchdown Passes per Game
Daniel Jones 2019-2019 13 2.3 1.8
Daunte Culpepper 1999-2003 58 2 1.6
Jameis Winston 2015-2019 72 1.9 1.7
Kurt Warner* 1998-2002 51 1.8 2
Jay Cutler 2006-2010 68 1.8 1.5
Matthew Stafford 2009-2013 61 1.7 1.8
Baker Mayfield 2018-2019 30 1.6 1.6
Peyton Manning 1998-2002 80 1.6 1.7
Andrew Luck 2012-2016 70 1.5 1.9

That list looks a lot better now. If anyone wants to make the case for Winston’s future in the league, it’s right here. But any case for him means his turnover rates have to drop from his historic highs.

There are plenty of bright spots in Winston’s play: Last season he ranked second in the league with 33 passing touchdowns and became just the eighth quarterback to eclipse 5,000 yards passing in a season. He had the most first downs and the most 20-plus-yard completions and ranked second in 40-plus-yard completions. But even the positive numbers require context. Winston led the league in dropbacks, which helped pad his passing totals. (He had 225 more pass attempts than Lamar Jackson but threw three fewer touchdowns.) Many of Winston’s totals, including his yards and interceptions, were a byproduct of his inflated pass attempts, so his per-throw figures are a better gauge of his performance. He threw for 8.2 yards per pass attempt, tied for the fifth-highest mark in the league. That’s good, but it still doesn’t paint the full picture.

By average net yards per pass attempt, a stat that factors in picks, sacks, and touchdowns, Winston ranked 18th (6.2), just behind Brady. That’s about average. We can get an even better gauge of Winston’s play by looking at ESPN’s Total QBR, which factors in every play and accounts for context (in Total QBR, a fourth-quarter interception while trailing by 28 points is not weighted as heavily as a fourth-quarter interception while trailing by three points). In 2019, Winston had a Total QBR of 53.7, tied with Brady for 16th. Winston’s two extremes combined made him an average starter by some metrics, but saying that Winston’s 2019 was average is like sticking your head in the oven and feet in the freezer, and calling it room temperature.

Anyone who watches Winston knows that he is anything but average. Yet as bad as some of his interceptions are, not all of his 30 picks were his fault. Last year Winston threw plenty of picks that happened because a receiver ran the wrong route, a ball got bobbled and intercepted, or a defender made a great play. Arians estimated on CBS Sports Radio recently that roughly a third of Winston’s 30 picks were not his fault. Bucs receiver Chris Godwin, who ranked third in receiving yards last year, defended Winston further by saying as many as half of Winston’s picks may not have been Winston’s fault.

Winston also played in a system last year that made him pick-prone. He’s an aggressive downfield passer who was coached by Arians, whose system is based on aggressive downfield passing. Winston’s average pass length was 10.4 yards in 2019, the second highest in the league. Dan Morse at Football Outsiders tried comparing Winston’s 2019 season to others by creating a tool that measured similarity scores between quarterback seasons. Among the 10 quarterback seasons most similar to Winston’s 2019, two were Arians quarterbacks: Ben Roethlisberger in 2006, when Arians was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, and Carson Palmer in 2013, when he was the head coach in Arizona.

Also, in fairness, injuries may have played a role in Winston’s performance. He played the final three games of the season with a hairline fracture in his thumb on his throwing hand, and this offseason he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He also had another surgery that gained a lot of headlines and could play a role in his career going forward: In February, he underwent LASIK surgery to improve his vision.

Look at any game in Jameis’s season and you might land on a baffling throw, like this one in Week 1, when he could have thrown the ball into the dirt but did this

… or this one in Week 6, when he just doesn’t see Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly in the middle of the field and throws his third of five interceptions in that game …

… or this one from Week 15, when Jameis stares down his option and throws the ball directly to a Lions defender.

Some of these plays are so egregious that the only explanation seems to be that Winston didn’t see the defender. That’s why his LASIK surgery is such a shocking yet obvious development: No other player has so many plays in which “he might not be able to see well” is a serious possibility. We’ll never know how much of a difference the eye surgery would’ve made had he had it earlier, but any improvement from here on out will likely be attributed to it.

The Buccaneers have decided they’ve had enough of Winston and are turning to Brady instead. The difference is stark. Brady’s interception rate in 2019 was 1.3 percent versus Winston’s 4.8 percent. At that rate, Brady—who threw 613 times last season—would need 2,308 throws to toss 30 interceptions. (In the past four seasons, Brady has thrown a total of 29 interceptions.) But interceptions alone don’t reveal a quarterback, and Brady’s arm strength has clearly diminished recently. What would have been the difference between Brady and Winston in 2019 if their Total QBR had been identical? Pro Football Focus grades every play and produces an overall composite, which is more of an eye test than Total QBR’s outcome-based numbers. According to PFF, Brady graded as the 10th-best qualified quarterback last season, while Winston graded as 22nd best. Of the 13 quarterbacks Winston graded higher than, eight are not slated to be starters in 2019 (Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Marcus Mariota, Mitchell Trubisky, Jacoby Brissett, Case Keenum, Mason Rudolph, and Kyle Allen) and three were rookies (Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, and Kyler Murray). The only nonrookie starters with a lower PFF grade than Winston last year were Sam Darnold and Josh Allen.

A new team may also be reluctant to take a chance on Winston because of his off-field behavior. A Florida State University student said Winston raped her in December 2012. Winston said the encounter was consensual. Tallahassee prosecutors declined to file criminal charges in the case, and Winston and the student settled a civil case in December 2016. Winston was also investigated by the NFL after a female Uber driver said in 2016 that he grabbed her crotch. Winston was suspended three games by the NFL after the investigation. No criminal charges were filed. A lawsuit filed by the driver was settled in November 2018.

Winston will likely need to accept a backup job to keep playing. Marcus Mariota, who was taken by the Titans at no. 2 directly after Winston in the 2015 draft, has already signed with Las Vegas to back up Derek Carr. Winston could be a project for a coach who thinks he can fix whatever ails the quarterback, which may have been best described by a coach who told the Tampa Bay Times that Winston was a “slow-twitch guy at a quick-twitch position.” As Winston said in his final Bucs press conference, he will be one of the league’s best quarterbacks if he stops turning the ball over. But everything about the way Winston left Tampa Bay echoed the way he entered it, right down to that press conference.

In Jameis’s first NFL game, he played against Mariota and the Titans. On the opening drive, Mariota threw a 52-yard touchdown pass that put the Titans up 7-0. With the pressure on Winston to respond, he also orchestrated a touchdown drive—for the Titans. On his first NFL pass, Winston tossed a pick-six that gave the Titans a 14-0 lead just three minutes into the first quarter. The Bucs lost, 42-14. After the game, Winston was asked what he’d learned about the NFL in his first start.

“You can’t give it to the defense,” Jameis said. “That first drive just killed us. But you know, the thing is we’re gonna bounce back. It’s one game. It’s something to learn from.”