Jameis Winston returned to the starting lineup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 12 against San Francisco, and after leading his team to a 27-9 win was praised by Head Coach Dirk Koetter for his decision making. That was most clearly evident in the bottom line on the Buccaneers' most significant stat of 2018: Turnovers. For the first time since Week One, the Bucs finished the day without a single giveaway, and that allowed their high-powered offense to run away with the game.
There was more to Winston's good decision-making then deciding when and when not to throw into tight spaces on Sunday. The fourth-year quarterbacks also chose the right times to scramble out of the pocket, and that was good news for the Buccaneers because when Winston does break containment it is a decidedly good thing for the offense.
"I thought he made really good decisions," said Koetter after the game. "He made decisive decisions. He didn’t hold it too long and he didn’t wait for plays to develop that might happen as time went on. He took the sure thing when it was there. Then he also did an excellent job on scramble plays – making decisions outside the pocket – whether to throw or run."
Indeed, Winston has been nothing short of spectacular on scramble plays this season. That includes the occasional well-timed run, like the 15-yarder in the second quarter on Sunday that got Cairo Santos in range for a 41-yard field goal. More significantly, Winston's scrambles have produced big plays in the passing game, such as the 34-yard play on Sunday in which Winston broke out to his right and forward toward the line of scrimmage, finding Mike Evans running across the field with a defender a step behind. Winston got off a touch pass that led Evans perfectly so that he caught it in stride and while breaking upfield. That was the big play in the drive that led to Peyton Barber's two-yard touchdown run to put the Bucs up by two scores in the third quarter.
In terms of passer rating, Winston has been the most effective passer in the NFL this season on plays on which he scrambles to his right. He's completing nearly 80% of his passes in such situations, has averaged 12.7 yards per attempt and has a 2-0 TD-INT ratio, all of which adds up to a perfect 158.3 rating. The next closest quarterback on the list is Cleveland's Baker Mayfield, who has a 130.3 rating when scrambling right. San Diego's Philip Rivers, Seattle's Russell Wilson and Atlanta's Matt Ryan are the only other qualifying passers with a rating above 100 on such plays.
It was on such a play that the Buccaneers got their last touchdown in Sunday's game. On a second-and-12 from the San Francisco 28, Winston darted out of a collapsing pocket and found open space on the right side. Though throws back across the field on scramble plays are often ill-advised, in this case Winston had plenty of room to get off an unhurried throw to Adam Humphries, who had used the extra time to sneak into a wide-open spot in the middle of the field. Humphries caught the ball with his back to the end zone at the 15 and then whirled and raced the rest of the way to the painted grass, powering through a defender at the goal line.
Humphries didn't realize until he spun around that he had been so wide-open, but afterwards he knew it was another great example of Winston making the right decision, which led to points rather than a turnover.
"That obviously has been something we have put a lot of emphasis on the past four-to-five weeks and obviously we have turned the ball over a lot," said Humphries. "That has hurt us and put us behind the sticks. Today, he did a great job of protecting it and scrambled when he needed to and found some guys down the field and made some great throws. It feels really good to come out there with a clean game like that."
Scrambling to the left is a tougher proposition for right-handed quarterbacks like Winston, and he hasn't done that as often this season but it has still gone well for the Buccaneers when he has. Winston has thrown the ball four times when scrambling left and completed all four of them for 45 yards. There are no touchdowns or interceptions in that sample, but if you combine both directions of scrambling together Winston still has a rating of 157.2.
That, too, leads all passer this year. San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo is next but that's on just two passes. The only other quarterbacks with scramble passer ratings above 100 this year are Ryan and Winston's teammate, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Such plays are unscripted, of course, and can't necessarily be counted on from week to week, but when they do happen they are just about the best thing that a very good offense has going for it.