Why 'Gunslinging' Won't Save Jameis Winston
When a quarterback is deemed a "gunslinger" in the NFL, the goal is to be more John Wayne than badly adapted Steven King protagonist. Jameis Winston is trending a bit more towards the latter―flashy, but riddled with mistakes and ultimately painful to watch.
The notion of a gunslinger is apt for the sort of quarterback it describes. A gunslinger does his best work freelancing after the world around him falls apart, a commentary on the pioneering spirit of exploration and expansion that Western movies aimed to capture.
In the NFL, gunslingers like Brett Favre played with unrefined candor, a take-it-or-leave-it mentality, where touchdowns could be found as easily as interceptions. Jameis Winston walks this same path, believing that every throw could be a game-changer. Favre even commended Jameis in a Sirius XM radio interview this week (via the Athletic's Greg Auman):
The premise isn’t wrong, but “game-changing” isn’t a linear distinction.
Winston’s 2019 performance embodies his gunslinging nature like none previously, and the numbers are voluminous. He trails only Lamar Jackson in passing touchdowns with 26 and leads the NFL in interceptions with 23. Winston is second in pass yards (4115) and is averaging 8.04 yards per pass attempt, eighth-most this year.
Since the Bucs took him with the first overall pick in 2015 draft, Winston has led the NFL in interceptions with 81. The next closest quarterback in that department is Philip Rivers with 71.
In that same span, Winston has thrown 114 touchdowns, tenth-most since 2015. However, a darkness lies beneath the raw numbers that expose the true impact of Winston’s gunslinging ways.
Since 2015, Winston is throwing a touchdown on 4.7 percent of his pass attempts versus an interception on 3.3 percent of pass attempts. The difference between those two outcomes for Winston places him among the worst quarterbacks in the NFL, 35th of 47 quarterbacks who have started at least 16 games since Winston entered the league.
Defense-adjusted analytics further indicate Winston ought to turn in his sidearm. This season, Winston is 23rd in yards above replacement (DYAR) and 24th in value over average (DVOA) out of 33 quarterbacks per Football Outsiders. Winston has thrown just 112 yards above replacement-level quarterback play, and his value 7.9 percent below the average NFL quarterback. Basically, he's thrown just 112 yards that couldn't be replaced by another passer and is overall a below average quarterback.
The interceptions are a big part of the problem, but not the sole factor. Some would cite his offensive line as a mitigating factor, hanging the career-high 41 sacks he’s taken as proof that he simply doesn’t have time to throw the ball. However, Winston is in the middle of the pack in terms of time in a clean pocket, averaging 2.4 seconds same as Russell Wilson and more than Drew Brees, neither of whom has more than five interceptions.
Many of Winston’s 41 sacks can be put on his talent at extending plays that dissolves into his fatal unwillingness to let a play go. Keeping the old six-shooter in the holster is something, five years on, Winston has not yet learned to do.
The sacks and interceptions take a toll. The Bucs defense have the third-worst average starting field position, thanks largely to Winston’s 28 total turnovers. Short fields from Winston turnovers and his five pick-sixes put more than 80 points on the board for the Bucs’ opponents this season, over 20 percent of their allowed points.
Winston’s Week 13 performance against the Colts is the perfect microcosm of his career, if viewed from behind rose-colored glasses. He turned the ball over three times, including a pick-six. The Bucs were 2-8 in games when Winston threw three or more picks, but not on this day. Instead, Winston threw for a career-high 456 yards and scored five touchdowns. Truly a Herculean effort.
The problem is, Winston has far more games with three or more turnovers (15) than he does five touchdown games (2). Even Brett Favre recognizes how untenable the situation is (via Auman):
Favre even has the answer: stop asking Winston to be this shoot-em-up cowboy (via Auman):
Between Dirk Koetter and Bruce Arians, Winston's coaching schemed towards big plays on deep drops and big throws. It's a heavy contributor to his sack totals, as it has to nearly every quarterback who has played for Koetter or Arians, and it trends towards a high boom-and-bust rate.
What appears to be missing from Winston's arsenal is play-action. The Bucs have run just 83 play-action plays in 2019, a mere 16.2 percent of Winston's pass attempts and less than 28 other NFL quarterbacks. It's a puzzling rate given that Winston averages 9.52 yards per attempt off play-action, eighth-most in the NFL and over a yard more than his overall yards per attempt. Taming the gunslinger could be as easy as pretending to give away a football.
The Bucs face a major decision this offseason, whether to keep their would-be franchise quarterback around a while longer or let him mosey on down the road. Even with coaching adjustments, there's no guarantee that Winston will be able to harness the wild streak within him that makes him so dangerous to both teams on the field. The question may be whether the Bucs are willing to gamble on the fortunes of a natural gunslinger.