When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers secured a big win in Atlanta to open the 2016 season, Jameis Winston was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week. When Tampa Bay lost its next three contests, attention turned quickly, and understandably, to Winston's eight interceptions on the season. However the Bucs fare over the next three quarters of the season will surely also be evaluated through the lens of the young quarterback's performance.
And the Buccaneers are fine with that. No one at team headquarters is shying away from the idea that the team's fate rests on Winston's shoulders.
"We put a lot on a young player – as coaches, as fans, the organization – because we need him to be great now," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "We certainly do. And he is capable of that. We've seen that. Him playing at his best, he is a tremendous football player, as in Week One and at times last year."
Nor do Winston's coaches are teammates wish to stifle the 22-year-old's natural competitiveness, which drives him to extend plays and occasionally take chances that backfire. They simply want to harness it, and squeeze as much as possible out of it by providing the right support around Winston.
"Man, you talk about a competitive spirit and a will to want to compete and make every play, man, that's who you want to build your team around," said Monken. "Is he there yet? No. Are we there yet, collectively? No. But you'd rather have to reel a guy back in then try to develop some toughness or will to win and competitive spirit. That's what we have at quarterback and we need to embrace that and continue to mold that and develop that. That's coaching, that's playing, that's running the football better and him taking care of it better."
Winston has balanced his eight interceptions with eight touchdown passes to tie for fifth in the league in that category. He's on pace for more than 4,400 yards and he's produced some of his best work this season while moving around to avoid pressure. Over his first 20 NFL games, Winston has tossed 30 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. The Buccaneers need that ratio to be more lopsided in favor of the first number, but where it stand now is not particularly surprising for a very talented but very young NFL quarterback.
Monken, in fact, made a point of looking up the early TD-INT ratios for the three established star quarterbacks in the NFC South, as well as some other very recognizable names.
"If you talked about the three quarterbacks in our division, their first two years: Cam Newton – 40 and 29; Drew Brees, 28 and 31; Matt Ryan, 38 and 25," Monken related. "That's their first two years [as a starter] in the league. Three pretty good quarterbacks. One that's an MVP, one's been doing it for years and Matt Ryan now leading the NFL in yards. Peyton Manning, 52 and 43. Brett Favre, 37 and ; John Elway, 25 and 29. It happens as they develop. It happens. Now am I completely comparing him to them? No. All I'm saying is, I love that kid."
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As most NFL fans understand, not all interceptions are created equal. Of the eight that Winston has tossed so far, Monken pointed out one that was caused by a bad route by the receiver, one that was an on-target throw that bounced out of a Buccaneer players' hands, and one that was a desperation heave into the end zone at the end of a game. Winston's teammates understand that and are eager to help in the absolutely critical process of reducing the turnovers.
"He's the quarterback," said tackle Demar Dotson. "They're always going to take the brunt [of it] because of all the attention on them and they're the ones that have the ball. When you throw an interception, people don't realize that you could have had pressure in your face or the receiver could have run the wrong route. There are a lot of things that go into it, but he's going to take [the blame]. All of the interceptions that he has weren't all his fault. It's a team game."
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Of course, some of the interceptions are Winston's fault, and he generally tries to take the blame for all of them. He is viewing the issue as his to resolve, which is just what he did last year when he followed up a seven-interception first quarter of the season by throwing just eight more the rest of the way. It is clearly the number-one thing on his mind as the Bucs prepare for the Carolina Panthers and the second quarter of the season.
"The main thing is just keeping everything simple and being myself, just worrying about self-development and worrying about my techniques, mechanics – just going back to the basics," said Winston. "Doing whatever I could to make sure the ball did not going to the other team. It's a *choice. *I've got a lot of decisions to make out there, so my choice is, I have to protect the football."
At times, that will be accomplished by foregoing a risky shot downfield and checking the ball down or throwing it away. But the Buccaneers do need Winston to make big plays down the field, and they do know that some of their most successful moments come from plays that have broken down. They simply need to create a better overall environment for Winston to use his competitiveness.
"What do we need to do? We need to play better around him," said Monken. "We need to be able to run the ball better. We need to be able to run routes with better precision. We need to protect him better. We need to be up in the game. He's a very competitive young man. He's going to always try to make plays that help you win. With that being said, I think that's a great trait.
"So, sure, we have to be better, collectively, to not put him in those situations, because the one thing he's going to do is compete."