Preston Brown was standing still.
With 11 seconds left in the first quarter on Sunday, the Buccaneers were down seven points and just 7 yards from the red zone. On first-and-10, Jameis Winston faked a handoff, rolled to his right on a bootleg, and came under immediate pressure. As Winston tried to avoid the sack, he saw receiver Mike Evans and got rid of the ball. What Winston did not see was Bengals linebacker Brown standing flat-footed right in front of Evans.
It was surely the easiest interception of Brown’s life and one of the few moments fans could truthfully say “I could have caught that” while watching an NFL game. Even Tampa Bay’s linemen were baffled by the mistake.
Even the Bucs OL couldn’t believe that Jameis INT pic.twitter.com/HdW0XFQcWa— Master (@MasterTes) October 28, 2018
That throw was the second of four interceptions for Winston, who was benched for Ryan Fitzpatrick with two minutes left in the third quarter in the Bucs’ 37-34 loss to the Bengals. FitzMagic, who finished with a 154.9 passer rating and two touchdowns compared to Winston’s 47.7 rating and one touchdown, led an 18-point comeback to tie the game with just over a minute left before the Bengals kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired.
Winston’s mistakes were simply too much for Tampa Bay to overcome—“I’m definitely the reason why we came up short,” he said after the game—and now it’s time for the team to ask whether it must move on Winston altogether.
Winston was suspended for the first three games of this season for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy after an Uber driver said Winston grabbed her crotch and an offseason league investigation found her story credible. Despite missing those games, Winston has 10 interceptions this season, tied for the league lead through the end of Sunday’s early games. Even in Winston’s only victory in his four regular-season games, the team won despite him: In last week’s overtime battle with the Browns, Winston took sacks of 7 and 12 yards on the Bucs’ final drive before Chandler Catanzaro’s 59-yard game-winning kick.
Winston has not shown the growth on or off the field that the Buccaneers envisioned when they picked him no. 1 overall in the 2015 draft, and his benching reignites the discussion of whether the team should extend Winston’s contract, which expires after next season. Since he entered the league in 2015, he is 13th in passing yards, 15th in passing touchdowns, and second to only Blake Bortles in interceptions. The Bucs have a 19-29 record in games he has started in that time frame. As Fitzpatrick could not have made clearer in the fourth quarter, the 35-year-old journeyman gives the team a far better chance of winning—and protecting the ball, which is an astonishing thing to say about Ryan Fitzpatrick. Even without his off-field issues, Winston is not a strong candidate for a long-term extension that would likely pay him more than $20 million annually. Factoring in multiple incidents related to his conduct since entering the national spotlight, the question for the Bucs isn’t whether or not they should move on from Winston, but when.
Trading him before Tuesday’s deadline seems unlikely, which means the first chance for Tampa Bay to move on will probably come this offseason. The Bucs owe Winston $20.9 million next year after exercising the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, but none of that money is guaranteed, and the team could release him this offseason without paying him anything. That could be a viable choice if they are intrigued by the quarterbacks in the 2019 draft or potential free agents available, like New Orleans’s Teddy Bridgewater. The team could also re-sign Fitz, who led a 2-0 start over the Saints and Eagles and was nearly perfect in relief on Sunday.
If the Bucs would like to see one more season from Winston or aren’t enamored of Fitzpatrick or any other alternatives, they could play out his 2019 contract, but that would only seem to delay the inevitable. If the team isn’t planning to sign Winston to an extension in the offseason, it’s unlikely they would reach a deal midseason when he’s on the cusp of free agency. The Bucs may be better served to give Fitzpatrick the job for the next season and a half and look toward 2020, which boasts possible free agents such as Dak Prescott and a deep quarterback draft class that could include Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Georgia’s Jake Fromm, and Washington’s Jacob Eason.
That plan involves risk. There are certainly a lot of question marks about who the Bucs’ next franchise quarterback could be, but there are not many questions left about Winston. He’s good for league-average production, league-leading turnover figures, and a startling lack of self-awareness during games on the field while being suspended for behavior off of it. Tampa Bay is better off rolling with the unknown than sticking with the quarterback it knows.