The 55 rushing yards that Jameis Winston contributed in last Sunday's overtime win over the Cleveland Browns set a new single-game career high for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' fourth-year quarterback. He led the team in rushing, scored on a daring 14-yard scamper-and-dive and repeatedly turn potential disaster plays into useful gains.
This was not the first time that Winston has used his legs to make a positive impact on the Bucs' offense. He is definitely doing it better in 2018, however, thanks to an ever-improving feel for the game.
"I think I have gotten better at it, knowing when to pull it down," he said. "But it also depends on the coverage. When you play a lot of man against our guys it kind of opens up some lanes and you just take advantage of it."
Indeed, Winston's new career high in rushing came against a defense that was playing a lot of "two-man" safety coverage with no defender specifically tasked with getting the quarterback if he becomes a runner. But he also had five scrambles for 29 yards in his first start of the season, at Atlanta in Week Six. Winston played the second half of the Bucs' Week Four game at Chicago and ran once for seven yards, so in two-and-half outings he has 91 rushing yards, or about 36 per game, counting Chicago as half a game. Coming into this season, Winston was averaging 11.4 rushing yards per game in his career.
In fact, Winston may be a bit underrated as a runner. Since he entered the league as the first-overall pick in 2015, he has run for 604 yards, which is 10th-best among all quarterbacks in the NFL in that span. This stat is admittedly a bit misleading because there are some passers on the list with significantly fewer games played than Winston. For instance, the quarterback just ahead of him on the list is Colin Kaepernick, who hasn't played since 2016. And some of the quarterbacks ahead of him on the list, such as Cam Newton and Tyrod Taylor, are far ahead of him. In terms of rushing yards per game, Winston is somewhere in the vicinity of a Ryan Tannehill or a Carson Wentz.
The point isn't that Winston is a "running" quarterback like Newton or Marcus Mariota; it's that he is more capable of creating positive plays with his feet than he often gets credit for being. That's due in part to the improved decision-making as noted, above, and in part to his competitiveness, which most recently showed when he eschewed a slide for a first down inside the five against the Browns and instead dived headlong between two defenders to get the ball over the goal line.
"Him playing the way he does – one, it got us a touchdown, in terms of his competitive nature," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "There were one or two other third downs where he did a great job of running and finding a way to get us an extra five yards without taking the type of hit that you don't want to take. There were other times he found guys, scrambling-wise, for big plays."
There's always the question of whether a coach actually wants his quarterback, his team's most precious commodity, diving for extra yards at the risk of taking a hard hit. Winston certainly made timely slides on some of his other runs against the Browns, but that desire to make the big play at a crucial moment will probably never be coached out of him.
"I think it's just my will," said Winston. "Sometimes you pull the ball down, sometimes I hold the ball too much, and I think those big guys like when I pull the ball down and get a couple extra yards for them."
Winston is right about that, and even if their quarterback isn't quite as fluid in his running style as the league's top rushing QBs, those big men are unsurprisingly more concerned about function than form.
"I love it when he runs," said guard Ali Marpet, who joined the Bucs in the same draft that started with Winston. "Jameis is efficient and he makes plays when he needs to as far as running. When he needs to get it done with his legs, he does. There have been a lot of times he's bailed us out as an offensive line.
"I don't care how someone looks when they run. I care how efficient they are when they're running. Jameis gets first downs and he's got a good feel."
And Marpet is right about that, particularly as it pertains to the 2018 season so far. Winston has run 16 times this year, and seven of those have resulted in first downs (including one rare called run for Winston on a read-option play in Atlanta). That 43.8% first-down rate on his runs is fine, about league-average for quarterbacks, but it isn't the best measure of how efficient he has been when he's pulled it down. Look a little deeper and we'll find that most of Winston's runs have been successful plays.
The "successful play" statistic takes down into account. A successful play on first down is any one that gains at least 40% of the yards necessary for a first down; on second down, it is any play that gains half of the yards necessary for a first down; on third or fourth down, obviously, it's any play that gains the first down. So if Winston scrambled three straight times and got respective gains of six yards on first down, three on second down and one or more on third down, those would all be effective and efficient runs.
In his first three seasons, Winston was credited with a successful play on 42.4% of his runs, just ahead of Atlanta's Matt Ryan, who is not considered a dynamic runner. That percentage ranked 22nd among all quarterbacks who had at least 50 runs in that span. This year, Winston has a success rate of 68.8% of his carries, which ranks sixth in the NFL. If we remove Cincinnati's Jeff Driskel and Tennessee's Blaine Gabbert, who have barely played, and New Orleans backup Taysom Hill, who is used exclusively on gadget plays, the only passers with a better success rate than Winston are Philadelphia's Nick Foles and, amusingly, Matt Ryan.
There's no reason to expect Winston to put up 50 yards every game, or even 20. There will be opposing defenses whose schemes will discourage scrambling past the line, and there will be games where the right situation for Winston to run just doesn't materialize. But if the opportunity is there for him to help his team with his feet, Winston is going to take it, and most likely he's going to turn it into a good play.
"I don't know how a team is going to play us week to week," he said. "I consider myself a run threat but a lot of people don't view that. My main focus is making sure that I execute everything else, and if I have to make a play with my arm or with my feet that I can do it."