One of the most impressive throws Jameis Winston has made during the first week of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp traveled all of four yards in the air.
Winston made that short toss on Friday, to running back Andre Ellington, and because the other potential targets on the play had drawn the defense away from Ellington's space, the veteran back was able to scamper all the way for a touchdown. Little pass, huge play. Most importantly, it was the right decision, which Leftwich made sure to impress on Winston both in the moment and later in the meeting room.
"That play, he probably only threw a four-yard pass, right?" said Leftwich, who played quarterback in the NFL for a decade before going into coaching at the urging of Bruce Arians. "But that was the right decision, because that's what we're asking him to do. And that decision, when you do this you're throwing a four-yard pass [and] that's hard for us to do as quarterbacks, right? You know, we want to throw the ball down the field. It's hard for us. I've been in that [situation]. It's hard for us to run guys down the field and look and then take that four-yard pass. But when he does make that right decision he gets to come in, look at it on tape, he gets to see Andre Ellington running into the end zone."
If Leftwich was fashioning a highlight reel of Winston's week, it wouldn't be a collection of his "money throws" – high-arching downfield bombs or perfect back-corner end zone fades – but rather the quarterback's "money decisions." That's the most important thing Leftwich can see from Winston in the next month as the 25-year-old passer prepares for a critical fifth NFL season.
"See, it ain't always a money throw for me," said Leftwich. "It's a money decision. That's what that position is all about. Everybody wants to see the big 40-yard post – that's coming, trust me. That's there. But that's not what we're going to ask Jameis to do every snap. What we're going to ask him to do is put us in the right position, make the right decision more than not. Put us in the right place to be successful this play, more than not. That's what we're trying to get him [to do]."
The first-overall pick in the 2015 draft, Winston has already started 54 NFL games and thrown nearly 2,000 passes. He's racked up 88 touchdown passes and nearly 15,000 passing yards. He's seen his completion rate go up every year, to a high of 64.6% last year, and he also ranked 10th in the NFL in yards per attempt (7.9) last season. But he's also thrown 58 interceptions in his 56 games, and his interception rate of 3.7% last year was the highest of his career, though he curbed that problem pretty well down the stretch. For the Bucs to get the best version of Winston in the final year of his initial NFL contract, Leftwich knows they need him to make the right choices on as many plays as possible.
"It's about decision-making," said the coach. "We all know the kid can play, he can make throws. He's proven that. What he's done in this league has shown – from his rookie year, what he did when he stepped into this league – that shows you that he's a talent. So now we're just trying to get him to make better decisions as a whole, especially through a 65, 60-play game. You want him to make the better decision more than not."
The reason Leftwich gushed about a four-yard pass is because Winston chose the right target when he could have attempted riskier throws.
"He had an opportunity to hold that ball and fit that ball somewhere else, but what the defense did and who they covered, that ball was supposed to go right there," said Leftwich. "So the fact that it went right there is huge. That's the best play of the day. That's a four yard pass – that's the best decision, the best play he made in camp as of that day. There's a lot of things that we're going to do to get him to play well, but it's going to be those types of decisions when he's in those types of situations, where we can really be consistent and really be a good football team."
Leftwich isn't the only Buccaneers coordinator who has a role in this honing of Winston's decision-making. Todd Bowles' defense is putting the quarterbacks to the test every day, and that's just how Leftwich wants it. It is excellent training for what Winston will be dealing with when the live bullets start flying.
"Well, the good thing is they disguise well," said Leftwich of Bowles' schemes. "We probably won’t see a team disguise as well as Todd and them do all year, so that’s great for us to have those reps and those opportunities to see if we can get to the right spot. A lot of the times, we’re trying to put these guys in the worst situation, to be honest with you, especially early in camp so they know how to respond. Once they know how to respond to the danger of what can happen to a protection [or] to a passing route, once they know how to handle that, they’ll be fine just going against any regular old coverage."
The short pass to Ellington on Friday wasn't such a victory for Leftwich and Winston because that was where Winston knew he was going to throw it when he was waiting for the snap. It was a win because the quarterback discerned after the other 20 players on the field started running around that the smallest play had the best chance of coming up big.
"Every play I'm trying to make it as hard for him as possible. I'm always trying to put him in a position where he has to do something, he has to see this, before he's able to make the play. It's constant pressure on the quarterback position every snap, trying to make sure they make the right decision every snap."