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Jameis Winston Is Having the Strangest Possible NFL Season for the Ages

No QB has ever thrown 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season. Winston could become the first in Week 17. On the verge of this historic benchmark, let’s look back on his 2019: the good, the bad, and the completely and stunningly inexplicable.

Scott Laven/Getty Images

I recommend watching Jameis Winston play football in the same way that I recommend watching explosions. I wouldn’t recommend having Jameis Winston as your team’s quarterback in the same way that I wouldn’t recommend having your house explode.

In 2019, Winston was the bravest bannerman of football’s passing revolution, refusing to stop throwing regardless of the circumstances. Sometimes, this produced positive results. Winston has passed for at least 300 yards in 11 of the Buccaneers’ 15 games: He had 385 with four touchdowns in a 55-40 win over the Rams in Week 4; he had 456 yards with four scores in a 38-35 victory over the Colts in Week 14; he had 458 yards with four touchdowns in a 38-17 rout of the Lions in Week 15. He leads the league with 4,908 passing yards, and has 309 more than the quarterback in second, the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott. (Winston also ranks second in passing touchdowns with 31, behind just the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson.) Only three other NFL players have ever had as many or more 300-yard passing games in a single season—Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning—and with Week 17 still to go, Winston seems all but certain to become the eighth player in league history to record a 5,000-yard passing season.

But to reach such great heights, Winston has sacrificed dozens of Tampa Bay possessions. He has thrown 28 interceptions, more than any player has thrown since 2005. Nobody else in 2019 even has 20. If he throws two interceptions in his final game, Winston will become the first NFL QB since 1980 with 30 picks in a single season, and the first QB ever with 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. When Winston threw a pick-six to open last Saturday’s game against the Texans, it was the sixth of his season—tying a record for the most of all time.

Winston has thrown an interception on his very first pass of the game four times this year. Five times, he’s thrown at least three interceptions in a game. He’s doing this in an era when the league’s best quarterbacks barely throw interceptions at all. If you added up all the interceptions thrown this year by Tom Brady (seven), Drew Brees (four), Lamar Jackson (six), Patrick Mahomes (four), Aaron Rodgers (three), and Russell Wilson (five), you get 29—only one more than Winston has thrown by himself. Mahomes, Wilson, Rodgers, and Brees have fewer total interceptions than Winston has interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns.

In September, I predicted that Winston would lead the league in interceptions for the first time in his interception-filled career. In retrospect, that prediction was tame. Winston isn’t just leading the league in picks; he’s having a historic interception-throwing season. It boggles the mind that any quarterback could achieve such highs while so frequently throwing passes to the opposing team. No one has ever had a season like Winston’s, and no one may ever have one again—unless, of course, Winston can convince teams to continue playing him.

In baseball, hitters have realized that the optimal strategy is to try to hit a lot of home runs, even if it means striking out a lot. The value of a homer is high enough that it outweighs the accompanying increase in unproductive outs. So it’s become common for virtually everyone to swing for the fences, even if it means taking riskier swings. MLB teams combined to hit 6,776 homers in 2019, obliterating the prior record of 6,105, and also combined to strike out 42,823 times, smashing the previous record of 41,207.

Perhaps you’d think that football’s increase in passing would come with a similar attitude toward interceptions—that the increase in touchdowns means riskier throws. But interceptions aren’t really like strikeouts—they’re plays that end a team’s entire scoring opportunity. A strikeout is like an incompletion. An interception on first down is more like a triple play.

Even though modern quarterbacks throw more than ever (the record for passing attempts in a season was set in 2015, when quarterbacks threw 18,298 passes; this year quarterbacks are on pace to throw for 17,778), the leaguewide interception rate (2.3 percent) is the lowest it’s ever been. Teams’ emphasis on passing has coincided with a marked increase in quarterback skill: QBs not only throw more often, but they’ve also gotten much better at it. When passing was a rarity in the early days of the game, most throws were crapshoots. In 1933, when teams averaged fewer than 15 passing attempts per game, the average team threw 5.7 touchdowns and 24.9 interceptions over the course of the season. But as passing emerged as a legitimate strategy rather than a here-goes-nothing gimmick, it became a consistent skill. Still, as late as 1985, the NFL had more interceptions thrown in a season (602) than touchdown passes (598).

In 2019, passing isn’t just a common strategy—29 of 32 NFL teams pass the ball more than they run—and the skill has been refined to the point where nobody throws more interceptions than touchdowns. The only quarterbacks who have made more than four starts this season and thrown more picks than touchdowns are the Steelers’ Devlin Hodges (five touchdowns, eight interceptions) and the Lions’ David Blough (four touchdowns, five interceptions), both undrafted rookies who were forced into action because of injury. In 1980, when the league had 28 teams, NFL quarterbacks combined to throw 627 interceptions. Last season, when the league had 32 teams, quarterbacks combined for just 419 picks.

Which makes Winston a man from a different planet. Some of the explanation for his spectacular yardage numbers and horrific interception numbers can be explained by sheer volume. He leads the league with 602 passing attempts, the most in a pass-heavy league. But even when we account for volume, his passion for throwing the ball to the other team is clear. Winston is throwing interceptions on 4.7 percent of his passes, more than double the leaguewide rate of 2.3 percent. The NFL average hasn’t been higher than 4.7 percent since 1978. Winston’s yardage numbers are very much a thing of the internet era, but his interception numbers are from the disco era.

There is no one type of Winston interception. Some are just missed throws:

Sometimes Winston seems to be on a completely different page from his receivers:

Sometimes—well, maybe more than sometimes—Winston reads only the player directly guarding his man, and fails to notice an underneath defender who can easily step in and pick off the pass:

Sometimes—OK, a lot more than sometimes—Winston throws an outside comeback route that a defender can jump in front of and intercept:

And some Winston picks are true one-of-a-kind lapses in judgment, plays in which he completely loses all sense and does things no other quarterback ever would. Can you explain any part of his decision here to sprint forward out of a clean pocket, then suddenly decide to throw a jump pass while crashing into the back of his offensive lineman?

If Winston wanted to throw a checkdown to his running back, why didn’t he just throw it instead of making a series of moves that ended with him attempting a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skyhook with a football?

I don’t even know how I would begin to answer the question of whether Winston is a good quarterback. He’s clearly capable of some things that average quarterbacks are incapable of. He also clearly has self-destructive traits that other quarterbacks don’t. Even if the rest of Winston’s team is struggling, he can make spectacular plays that keep his team in the game. Of course, when the rest of his team is playing a winnable game, he can ruin it with a backbreaking pick. Last week against the Texans, he built a huge deficit with awful picks, fought to get his team into position to win the game, and then threw it away with more awful picks. This coming Sunday, Winston will take the field against the Falcons with a chance to make history by crossing the 5,000-yard threshold or by hitting that 30-TD, 30-INT mark. But the team itself has little to play for—it is set to miss the playoffs, just as it did in the first four years of Winston’s career.

Sunday will also be the last game Winston will play on his rookie contract. After that, the Buccaneers will need to make a decision about his future. For now, Tampa Bay is reportedly planning on bringing Winston back, but that could mean one of two things: The Buccaneers could sign him to a long-term contract to keep him as their QB1, or they could use the one-year franchise tag to keep him for the 2020 season before reevaluating where they are as a team a year from now.

It’s a fraught decision. Winston has been the face of the Buccaneers since they made him the no. 1 pick in the 2015 draft. It’s rare for a team to not reach a long-term extension with a former top pick—that means admitting the past few years were pointless, that all those hopes and dreams and jerseys sold were a waste.

But how could the Buccaneers consider making Winston their long-term quarterback? This year, Tampa Bay was sixth in defensive DVOA and eighth in yards allowed per play; their defense was legitimately good. But they allowed more points than 29 NFL teams because Winston’s six pick-sixes gave opposing teams 42 free points, and his 33 total turnovers gave opposing teams the second-best starting field position of any team’s opponents. Let’s be clear about that: The Buccaneers have a top-10 defense, and Winston’s turnovers made the team look like one of the worst three defenses in the league. His turnovers are the reason this team won’t have a winning record this year.

There’s no evidence to suggest that Winston will figure this out with time. He had 10 picks as a freshman in college, then 18 as a sophomore. His interception rate went from 2.8 percent as an NFL rookie to 3.2 percent in his second year to 3.7 percent in 2018 to 4.7 percent this season. Quarterbacks should get better at avoiding turnovers as time goes on. Winston is the Benjamin Button of interceptions. There aren’t going to be more players like Winston. He’s a one-of-a-kind anti-star who cloaks his devastating tendency for self-destruction inside of a game that reasonably replicates the things good quarterbacks do. He succeeds often enough that teams might be convinced to let him ruin them.

As a neutral observer, I love it. Efficient quarterback play has become the standard in the modern NFL. Everybody is chasing the most efficient path to success … except this one guy who seems equally interested in success and failure. I’m just glad it’s not my house exploding.