In Greek mythology, Icarus had wings made of feathers and wax. One time, he flew too close to the sun, the heat melted the wax, and Icarus crashed into the sea. Jameis Winston is the opposite of Icarus. He starts every game by crashing into the sea, but then he takes flight and heads directly for the sun. Winston’s 2019 has been one of the odder quarterback seasons in recent memory, but his performance in Tampa Bay’s 23-20 loss to the Houston Texans may go down as the quintessential game of his career.
Winston completed 25 of 48 passes (52 percent) for 335 yards (seven yards per pass), one touchdown, and four interceptions. Three of those picks came in Tampa Bay’s first four drives, and two of them came on his first three pass attempts. Winston played the game with a broken thumb on his throwing hand and without his top three wide receivers, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Scotty Miller, all of whom were out with hamstring injuries. Not ideal, but also not an excuse for what ensued.
Winston threw a pick-six on his first pass of the game, his fourth interception on his first pass of a game this season. It was also the sixth pick-six he’s thrown in 2019, which is the most pick-sixes a quarterback has thrown since 2006 according to Pro Football Focus. Two throws later, Winston tossed another pick-six, though the touchdown was nullified because of a Houston penalty on the return. Still, the interception counted, and that gave him two picks on his first two drives for the first time in his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Two drives later, Winston threw another pick, which gave him three interceptions in the first 16 minutes of the game, more than Lamar Jackson and Aaron Rodgers have thrown in the last 68 days combined.
There are four astonishing details about Winston throwing three interceptions in the first half. The first one to know is the Texans dropped two other ones that hit defensive backs in the chest in the second quarter. Winston threw a pass directly into the bread basket of Texans safety Justin Reid midway through the second quarter, but Reid dropped it. On Tampa Bay’s final drive of the first half and the Bucs facing a second-and-goal at the Houston 8-yard line, Winston threw a ball directly into the shoulder pads of Houston cornerback Gareon Conley at the goal line so hard that the ball bounced off of his chest before Conley had time to react.
The second thing to know about Winston’s interceptions is that not a single one came under pressure from a defender. The Texans’ defense pressures quarterbacks at the second-lowest rate, and they barely got to Winston on Saturday. The pick-six on his first dropback came on a simple five-step drop with perfect pass protection.
On Winston’s second interception, he once again had excellent pass protection; both tackles sent the edge rushers downfield while the interior blockers picked up the blitz.
Winston’s third interception came on a play-action play where, again, no defender was anywhere near him. The interception gave cornerback Johnathan Joseph 17 picks in his Houston career, the most in franchise history.
Most teams try to pressure quarterbacks for two reasons. First, to get sacks. Second, sometimes the quarterback panics and turns the ball over. With Winston, teams don’t need to pressure him to make a mistake. Winston has 12 interceptions this season under pressure according to PFF, but he also has 15 interceptions not under pressure. Only three quarterbacks—Winston, Philip Rivers, and Baker Mayfield—have more than 15 picks total this season.
The third amazing detail about Winston’s first half was how many missed opportunities Winston and the Buccaneers had despite the interceptions. On Tampa Bay’s fourth drive of the game, receiver Justin Watson beat his cornerback for a wide-open touchdown in the right corner of the end zone, but Watson tripped just as he made his break and Winston’s on-target pass arrived where Watson would have been had he kept his footing. On the next play, Watson had receiver Breshad Perriman open for a deep touchdown on the other side of the field, but Winston overthrew Perriman (whether it was Winston’s thumb, a lack of chemistry with his receivers, both, or neither, Winston overthrowing people was a theme all game). On Tampa Bay’s final drive of the first half, Winston somehow overthrew both Watson and Perriman when the two receivers broke the cardinal rule of being in the same spot on the field. Amazingly, both were streaking wide open and nearly side-by-side to the left corner of the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown, but Winston sailed the pass.
Winston wasn’t the only one blowing opportunities. Tampa Bay’s third drive ended with a field goal attempt, but Houston defensive end Angelo Blackson blocked the kick (it’s the second week in a row Blackson has blocked a field goal). Midway through the second quarter, Texans safety Justin Reid stripped Bucs running back Peyton Barber and recovered the fumble for the fourth Houston takeaway of the first half.
The fourth and most astonishing fact was that despite all of those shenanigans in the first half, the game was tied at 17 entering halftime and tied at 20 entering the fourth quarter. The Tampa Bay defense held the Texans to just 2.6 yards per play in the first half and allowed just 83 yards on eight drives. In contrast, the Bucs offense gained 281 yards on nine drives. Tampa Bay got two takeaways of its own, including a pick to give the Bucs the ball right before halftime that Winston, finally, converted into a touchdown. Tampa Bay dominated the game (except for, you know, the turnovers).
Even at the end, the Buccaneers had a chance to win. At the two-minute warning, the Bucs were down three points and without their top four receivers. Breshad Perriman suffered an injury just before the break that sent him to the blue medical tent. That left Winston to try to be the hero. Instead he threw the fourth interception of the day, once again with a clean pocket. The pick clinched the win, and the win clinched the AFC South title for Houston. The Texans have won the AFC South four out of the past five seasons.
Winston has the most interceptions since he entered the league in 2015, but that fails to capture his feats this season. He now has 31 touchdowns and 28 interceptions this year, giving him a real chance to be the first quarterback in NFL history to pull a 30 for 30. In most games this season, Winston has dug his own grave and then tried to climb out. In each of his past two games before Saturday, Winston threw a pick on the first drive and then threw for more than 450 yards, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for that much in back-to-back weeks.
Tampa Bay has the best run defense in the league by total yardage allowed (73 yards per game including this week) and by Football Outsiders efficiency rankings. Winston may give up the lead to opposing teams every week, but this run defense has ensured Winston will get the ball back because no team can bleed the clock by running on Tampa Bay. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea may be the league’s best interior line combo, and LSU rookie Devin White and Lavonte David may be the best duo at inside linebacker. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul had three sacks on Saturday, and defensive end Shaquil Barrett leads the NFL with 16.5 sacks.
Winston’s performance came just hours after NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Buccaneers would likely tender Winston with the franchise or transition tag this offseason to bring him back in 2020. It appears Tampa Bay is willing to go forward with Winston, at least in the short term, despite his erratic play and troubling off-field history. As long as the Buccaneers keep Winston onboard, every play, every game, and every season with Winston means heading to the sun or the sea.