In 2015 and 2016, Jameis Winston became the first quarterback in NFL history to open his career with consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons. Thanks to a right shoulder injury that cost him three games and another five quarters – and also may have limited his effectiveness in a couple outings – Winston won't extend that streak to three years. However, he is definitely heating up down the stretch of his third NFL campaign.
Winston first suffered his shoulder injury in Week Six at Arizona and was replaced midway through the second quarter by Ryan Fitzpatrick. He played two more games after that one – one good in Buffalo, one poor at home against Carolina – then was injured again in New Orleans, missing exactly half of that game. The following week, the Bucs chose to rest Winston in order to let his shoulder heal; that process took three weeks.
During Winston's absence from the lineup, with the Buccaneers barely holding on to playoff aspirations, there was open speculation about whether the young passer should return to action in 2017. One school of thought suggested that, without the playoffs to chase, it might make sense to protect the 23-year-old franchise quarterback and make sure he was ready to go at the start of 2018. Head Coach Dirk Koetter, however, never wavered from the plan to play Winston when he was healthy, and that appears to have been a very good decision. Winston has played three games since his return – three valuable games of regular-season experience for a still-developing passer – and he has played well.
In fact, Winston has statistically been among the league's best passers over the last three weeks. Only one quarterback has a better passer rating in that span, and his seven touchdown passes have tied for the NFL lead.
Best Passer Rating, NFL, Weeks 13-15
|1. Blake Bortles||Jacksonville||128.6|
|2. Jameis Winston||Tampa Bay||109.0|
|3. Alex Smith||Kansas City||108.8|
|4. Case Keenum||Minnesota||107.9|
|5. Drew Brees||New Orleans||103.7|
|6. Cam Newton||Carolina||103.6|
|7. Matthew Stafford||Detroit||103.2|
|8. Jared Goff||L.A. Rams||100.3|
|9. Ben Roethlisberger||Pittsburgh||98.8|
|10. Dak Prescott||Dallas||98.4|
Most Touchdown Passes, NFL, Weeks 13-15
|1t. Jameis Winston||Tampa Bay||7|
|1t. Blake Bortles||Jacksonville||7|
|1t. Cam Newton||Carolina||7|
|1t. Russell Wilson||Seattle||7|
|5t. Jared Goff||L.A. Rams||6|
|5t. Case Keenum||Minnesota||6|
|5t. Ben Roethlisberger||Pittsburgh||6|
|5t. Alex Smith||Kansas City||6|
|six tied with…||5|
Passer rating is calculated using a variety of statistics, so it makes sense that a quarterback ranked high in that category would also be near the top of other statistical lists. That's the case for Winston since his return; he is among the NFL's top 10 quarterbacks in a wide variety of categories in that span.
|Passing First Downs||50||2nd|
|Passing First Down Pct. *||47.6||1st|
( Percentage of passes that result in a first down.)
The biggest improvement in Winston's game since his return from injury has been in his accuracy. Prior to his three week rest, Winston was completing 61.4% of his passes; since he has hit on 70.5%. He completed 27 of 35 passes in his last outing against Atlanta for a single-game career-high completion rate of 77.1%, and that included two deliberate spikes at the end of the game to kill the clock.
Winston made a jump in his completion rate from his first season to his second but has improved to a greater degree in that category from his second season to his third. A starter from his rookie season-opener, Winston was a 58.3% passer in 2015 and a 60.8% passer in 2016, and now he has that percentage up to 64.0% in 2017.*
There are 24 quarterbacks in the NFL who threw at least 300 passes and have done so again in 2017. Of those 24 players, Winston has seen the third-highest jump in his completion percentage this year. For some of the more accomplished players on the list, there simply wasn't much room for improvement. Drew Brees, for instance, is completing a spectacular 71.8% of his passes this year, but that's technically just a small jump up from the 70.0% mark he put together last year. Washington's Kirk Cousins is down almost a percentage point this year but Washington is not likely complaining about his still-excellent mark of 66.1%.
Still, it's a significant improvement for Winston, particularly because it has *not been the product of the team routinely giving him easier throws to execute. As noted last week in Data Crunch, the Buccaneers lead the NFL in completions that gain between 15 and 19 yards, and very little of that is due to yards after the catch. Winston ranked second in the NFL in 2016 in average yards gained at the point of his completions (Y@C), and he is once again second in that category in 2017. Here's the list of the 10 quarterbacks who have improved their completion percentage the most from last season to this one, and what their average Y@C figures were each year.
Winston's line stands out on that chart because his two Y@C averages are both high, and nearly identical. In contrast, Carolina's Cam Newton has seen a huge jump in his completion rate this year but that's obviously due in part to a change in offensive philosophy. With such additions as Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, the Panthers have tried to add a new dimension to their attack that allows Newton to quickly get the ball into the hands of his shiftier playmakers. And it has definitely worked, but it's a different path to improving that completion percentage than the one Winston has taken.
You can see similar trends in Minnesota with Keenum, Tennessee with Mariota and Buffalo with Taylor. The Hall of Fame-bound Brees could likely make any offensive approach work, but there's no doubt that the Saints have given him a lot more short passes this year to the dynamic running back duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
In Winston's case, the Buccaneers have still relied on Winston's arm strength and ability to hit difficult mid-range passes, but they've seen him increase his accuracy in the process. It has definitely been an encouraging late-season surge for Winston in 2017, as well as a whole season of promising development.