Jameis Winston has one game remaining in what's been one of the most extraordinary quarterback seasons in NFL history. In a game increasingly predicated on passing efficiency, Winston's high-volume, feast-or-famine performance has made him an outlier. And with his rookie contract set to expire, the Buccaneers have to figure out whether to keep him. There is much to consider.
Winston's thrown at least four interceptions in at least four games this season. He's also thrown for at least four touchdowns three times. He needs to throw just two interceptions in Sunday's finale against the Falcons at home to become a charter member of the NFL's 30-30 club, which is an arbitrary way of saying he can be the first quarterback to throw for 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in the same season.
Saturday's loss to the Texans was a pretty solid summary of the Winston experience. He threw two interceptions in the Bucs' first five plays from scrimmage, then another on Tampa Bay's first scrimmage play of the second quarter. By the end of the half, he led an 81-yard touchdown drive followed by another TD drive that included this dazzling 31-yard completion to Ishmael Hyman:
"Jameis has that 'Wow' factor," NFL Network's Nate Burleson said on the broadcast just after this play. "As soon he throws a pick, you say, 'Wow, Jameis.' But then there's plays like this, where you say, 'Wow, Jameis!' That's what's exciting about watching him."
After falling behind 17-3, the Bucs tied the game by halftime, only to lose, 23-20. In the waning minutes, Winston marched the Bucs from their own 10 to their own 38 before throwing another interception, effectively ending the game. Yep. It was an afternoon that had it all, the entire whirlwind of Winston.
Winston's 31 touchdowns and 28 picks puts him in a class by himself among this year's QBs:
This season's passing leaderboard has Winston keeping some rather negative company:
But Winston hasn't been total trash, either. He's also putting up some ginormous good numbers that rank right among the league's top passers:
It's not just an oddity for this year, either: Eli Manning had a TD:INT ratio of 31:25 as recently as 2010, but before that only three QBs in NFL/AFL history achieved the distinction of 30 TDs and 25 INTs in the same season - and it had been a while since anyone before Manning did it:
Since 1998, only eight QBs with a higher interception percentage than Winston's 4.7 have started every game of a season, according to The Tampa Bay Times. And in this decade, only five QBs with 300 or more attempts have posted a higher interception rate than Winston has this year:
Winston's willingness to take shots downfield makes him something of a throwback to when passing was considered much more of a high-risk approach than it is in today's quick-strike, throw-heavy era. The Times also noted that this year's interception rate for all QBs is 2.3%; in 1983, when the Packers' Lynn Dickey flirted with a 30-30 season, the league-wide average was 4.4%.
But Winston's aggressiveness hasn't often resulted in turnovers: he leads the league in deep pass attempts (depth of target of at least 20 yards) with 91, per Pro Football Focus. Yet only four of his deep throws have been picked, which is fewer deep-ball interceptions than Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield, Mitchell Trubisky, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, and Philip Rivers have this season.
In a vacuum, it can be easy to simply dismiss Winston's hot-and-cold tendencies. After all, he's been turnover-prone since he entered the league: Across his first four pro seasons (2015-18), Winston threw 58 picks; only the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger (59) threw more during the same span. But Winston's situation is far more complicated than what his stats suggest.
The Bucs' defense ranks sixth in DVOA, which suggests Good Winston hasn't carried Tampa Bay to seven wins on his own. But Bad Winston - at least this year - is also something of a product of his work environment: First-year head coach Bruce Arians has openly encouraged Winston to take risks, as if all those turnover tendencies before Arians' arrival never happened.
"The last four years - I don't care. I'm only judging you on what you're doing today with us," Arians said to him, according to ESPN. "Play quarterback the way we want to play."
The Arians approach - "No risk it, no biscuit," as he's fond of saying - emphasizes that thinking about making mistakes can limit what a QB does best. And the way Arians wants to play typically leads to a bunch of interceptions during a QB's first season in his system. Arians himself told The Tampa Bay Times this, going on to note that Carson Palmer (24) and Andrew Luck (18) both established career highs for picks during their first seasons with him.
So, what does this mean for Winston's future in Tampa Bay? On one hand, Arians has acknowledged there are still some doubts about whether Winston's issues can be fixed, given everything.
"I think it's about 50-50," Arians said earlier this season, per ESPN. "The corrections have been made, but the results aren't happening."
On the other hand, Arians told NBC's Peter King back in November that there's "a really good chance" Winston could land a new contract if he can keep playing well. Winston promptly threw four picks against the Saints that weekend, before leading the Bucs on a four-game winning streak in which he threw 11 TDs and "just" six picks. Then came last week's roller-coaster ride of a loss to the Texans.
Winston has a history of off-field infractions, too, including multiple allegations of sexual violence. If the Bucs want to move on, their options aren't great. They're likely to pick right in the middle of the pack of the draft, so they're probably not going to land an immediate fix there. And it's unlikely that any of the top pending free-agent QBs - Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Dak Prescott - will hit the market.
Teddy Bridgewater could be a possibility, but he'll have other suitors. Ryan Tannehill will likely stay in Nashville. After that, who's left? Eli Manning? Rivers? Case Keenum? Marcus Mariota? It's difficult to imagine the Bucs letting Winston walk for any of them. Cam Newton could also be a possibility, assuming the Panthers move on from him, but he'll also be coming off a major injury.
The Bucs' best and likeliest option is the franchise tag, which would allow them to go year-to-year with no long-term commitment. It'll be costly (an estimated $27 million in cash and cap, fully guaranteed) but the price tag would also be offset by the cap's anticipated rise to around $200 million (up from $188.2 million). Winston will have earned $20.9 million this season on the option year of his rookie deal, anyway.
Quality QBs are scarce, which is why they're so expensive. Winston's return would mean another year of his high-wire act, but the tag would also give the Bucs the ability to control how long they'd have to take on the risk of keeping him. For once, Jameis Winston may be the prudent option.
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.