As a team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers threw a franchise-record 36 touchdown passes in 2018. Despite that accomplishment, the Buccaneers individual single-season record for TD passes is 28.
Obviously, that unusual combination of facts was the product of the quarterback work being split between Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick last fall. Winston threw 378 passes and accounted for 19 of those touchdowns; Fitzpatrick got the other 17 among his 246 throws. Winston does happen to own the Bucs' single-season record, however, having tossed 28 touchdown passes in 2016.
Fitzpatrick is now with the Dolphins and Tampa Bay's new head coach, Bruce Arians, has made it abundantly clear that Winston is his man in 2019. Barring injury or a very unexpected cratering in his performance, Winston has a good chance to start all 16 games, as he did in each of his first two seasons. And he'll be at the helm of a passing attack that finished first in yards and tied for third in touchdowns last year. All of this would seem to make Winston a very good candidate to be the first Buccaneer quarterback ever to eclipse 30 touchdown passes in a single season.
In fact, Carmen Vitali believes that will happen. Carmen and I can't seem to agree on anything this week, and this is no exception. While I expect a very good year from Winston, I expect other factors to keep his TD total just below that mark. This is the latest debate in the Yes/No series we're running all this week. For each of the questions below, Carmen and I are going to say yes or no. We'll find out later this year who was right and who was wrong.
Wednesday: Will Jameis Winston throw 30 or more touchdown passes in his fifth NFL campaign?
Thursday: Will at least two Buccaneer defenders make the Pro Bowl in 2019?
Friday: Will any Buccaneer defender get 10 or more sacks this season?
View the top photos of Bucs quarterbacks during the 2019 offseason.
Yes or no: Will Jameis Winston throw 30 or more touchdown passes in his fifth NFL campaign?
Carmen Vitali: Yes
Last season, there were 10 teams that scored 30 or more passing touchdowns and exactly nine quarterbacks that accomplished the feat – the discrepancy being none other than the Buccaneers, whose offense scored 36 passing touchdowns that were split between both quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Judging off those numbers, go with me here: to make it into the top third of the league as a quarterback – you essentially have to throw 30 or more touchdown passes. So, in a lot of ways this argument really becomes can Jameis Winston land among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league by the end of 2019?
To this, my answer is still yes and I’ll tell you why (you figured I would, right?). Now, if we’re going off last year and Winston indeed plays every game for the Bucs in 2019, he’s throwing 36 touchdown passes and boom we've met our goal easily and have, actually, well-surpassed it.
But you and I both know it’s not that simple.
This is an entirely new system under Head Coach Bruce Arians and Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich, so things will presumably be a little different. Or will they? We get a little bit of a glimpse into Arians’ offensive philosophy thanks to his book entitled, The Quarterback Whisperer. He explains in the text that virtually every play has a touchdown and a checkdown option built in. It’s meant to be a fast-paced and high-scoring offense.
“QBs must always – always – act like the next play is going to be a touchdown, even if they don’t truly believe it.”
History favors this mentality if you look back at Arians’ past teams. In 2015, while head coach of the Arizona Cardinals with Carson Palmer at the helm of his offense, the Cards threw for the second-most passing touchdowns in the league with 35. That was even before the start of the real passing explosion we’ve seen the league trending towards the last couple of years. Consider that in 2015 the team that topped the passing touchdown list was the New England Patriots with Tom Brady throwing for 36 touchdowns. Last year, the team with the most passing touchdowns? The Kansas City Chiefs, where FIRST-YEAR quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw for all 50 of them and earned himself league MVP for his efforts.
While I expect the running game to be more involved in this new offense, with a former NFL quarterback at offensive coordinator, I really don’t see the Bucs’ passing game taking much of a hit because of this upward trend in the passing game itself. Not to mention the PLETHORA of weapons in said passing game that Winston has at his disposal. Mike Evans, anyone? He had eight touchdowns last year. And if Chris Godwin has the year that everyone from Arians to fans on social media are predicting, you have to think that he’ll play a bigger role in the offense, and therefore the scoring. With seven touchdowns last year, even a minimal uptick would mean at least 16 touchdowns from those two aforementioned receivers alone. And lest we forget about the tight ends, who according to Pro Football Focus, provide Winston with a 117.9 passer rating when targeted. With tight end O.J. Howard playing just 10 games last year, he and Cameron Brate still combined for 11 receiving touchdowns among them. Now imagine Howard stays healthy the whole year. We’re already at 27 touchdowns and not even accounting for the running backs, who should also get a little more involved in the short passing game within this offense in 2019 and could throw in a few receiving touchdowns to the mix as a result.
Plus, Winston himself is in a contract year with the Bucs picking up his fifth-year option last season. It makes this a make or break year for him. Good thing that’s exactly the type of quarterback Arians likes.
“This is why a coach always wants a quarterback who has something to prove – who believes he has somehow been wronged – because he is typically going to want to do everything in his power to succeed.”
Can Winston have a successful year without throwing 30 touchdown passes? No doubt. But to go back to my initial point of what this argument has really become, to be a top-ten quarterback, he’s going to have to reach that golden number 30 and who better than the league’s ‘Quarterback Whisperer’ to help Winston make it happen? How’s that for a bold prediction? Oh, wait. That’s not what we’re doing here, is it? Oh well. I said what I said.
Scott Smith: No
On Monday, I took the ‘no’ side of the "will Chris Godwin get 1,000 receiving yards" debate. I did so while also predicting a very good season for the third-year receiver. Godwin won't need 1,000 yards for his season to be a success.
Similarly, Jameis Winston certainly could reach 30 touchdown passes this year and it would surprise no one, but he doesn't need to do so in order for the season to be a success for both him and the team. When Winston broke the team record with those 28 TD passes in 2016, he also threw 18 interceptions. Let me ask you which Winston season you'd rather have this year: 30 TDs and 20 interceptions or 25 TDs and 10 interceptions. I know which one I'd choose.
That's my way of saying that Winston could make a significant improvement this year without improving on his best full-season touchdown total. Now, here's how that could happen: A more balanced offense.
The Buccaneers threw more touchdown passes than either the Saints or the Rams last year, but was their offense better than either of those two teams overall? Few would make that claim. The Saints had 33 touchdown passes – because the Saints always have 30-plus touchdown passes – but they also scored 26 times on the ground. The Rams scored 32 times through the air and 23 times on the ground. Of all the teams that had 30 or more touchdown passes in 2018, only the Vikings also had fewer than the Bucs' 11 touchdown runs.
I expect Bruce Arians, Byron Leftwich and Harold Goodwin to find a way to get more out of the rushing attack this year. One of the ways in which Arians expects to make Winston a better quarterback in his crucial fifth season is to make the situation around him better. That means a running game that better complements and sets up the passing attack and a stingier defense. As Arians has noted on several occasions since arriving, the Buccaneers' offense was too often fighting its way out of big deficits last year. That can lead to gaudy passing numbers but not necessarily a successful offense overall.
So let's say the Buccaneers are way behind less often this year and they're making an effort to run the ball more. This time, their 47 offense touchdowns might be split more like 28 in the air and 19 on the ground. Or maybe their total scoring actually declines a bit this year, along with a more steep decline in the points they allow.
If Winston does hold onto the starting job all season, and if he fails to reach 30 touchdown passes, that means that the Bucs' offense as a whole will produce at least seven fewer scores in the air. Will that be a step back? Not necessarily.
Since 2000, there have been 99 NFL teams that have had 30 or more touchdown passes in a season. Some of those were the automatic, every-year passing attacks you would expect, those led by the likes of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. But most of the other teams on the list pop here and there non-consecutively. For instance, the Pittsburgh Steelers had at least 30 touchdown passes in 2014, 2016 and 2018, but not in 2015 or 2017. They still made the playoffs in each of those years except 2018, when they went 9-6-1. The Steelers' TD pass totals in those five years fluctuated from 33 to 26 to 33 to 29 to 35, and it didn't much matter to the overall effectiveness of the offense.
Winston is probably going to have a 30-touchdown season in his career, hopefully multiple ones and hopefully as a Buccaneer. I don't expect this year to be one of them.