GREEN BAY, Wis. — If Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers shows anything, it’s that for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it may always be a mixed bag with quarterback Jameis Winston. He’ll give you some big-time plays, but also will make some amazingly poor decisions, such as the one Sunday that led to a lost fumble and a 26-20 overtime loss.
He spent three weeks on the sideline watching veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick lead the team to two wins by taking few risks. Yet Winston’s fumble in the second quarter Sunday showed that he has failed to absorb one of the most important lessons a quarterback can learn, something he continues to fail at in his third year in the NFL: knowing when a play is dead.
Under duress, Winston coughed up the ball as he was being taken down, resulting in a fumble recovery returned 62 yards by Dean Lowry for a touchdown. It was first-and-10. Winston should have taken the sack and lived to see another play. Instead, the Packers extended their lead to 17-7.
“I don’t even know how the ball came out,” Winston said. “I think when I ran back, I think I hit a guy’s butt or something. I don’t even know. I just know I was going out to the right, trying to actually throw it away, but I think when I ran back, I hit someone. … I had Cameron Brate on a route in front of me so I was about to throw it in front of him.”
Earlier in the game, on the opening drive, Winston hit Brate down the seam for a 28-yard touchdown, the first time the Bucs had scored a touchdown on an opening drive all year. For a unit that has struggled with slow starts, that was huge progress. He’d hit Brate again for a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter, another plus.
“It really did [feel like it was going to be a good day]. It really was,” Brate said. “We just kind of killed ourselves, whether it was sacks — those kind of killed our momentum, a couple calls didn’t go our way, the turnover — those killed us. … Ultimately we shot ourselves in the foot.”
Winston’s fumble, plus two Tampa Bay fumbles at the goal line, were unacceptable. You can’t pin that all on Winston when he was in the middle of changing a protection and the ball is snapped, but this team has to have more composure in high-pressure situations, Winston included.
To be fair, Winston didn’t find out until Sunday that he would be taking snaps from Evan Smith, a backup guard. Backup center Joe Hawley was to step in for starting center Ali Marpet, who landed on injured reserve this week, but Hawley came down with an illness.
“I don’t think I had my hands under Evan in about a year,” Winston admitted. “We had like two miscommunications and we just found out today that this was gonna be our offensive line. We did not think we’d be in this situation today. This was a game-time decision.”
The Bucs’ offensive line had an atrocious performance without Marpet and without starting right tackle Demar Dotson. They surrendered seven sacks — nearly a team record for the Packers — and on multiple instances, defenders were coming at Winston completely unabated.
“We didn’t protect Jameis nearly as well as we protected this year. That [was] probably our worst protection game that we played all year,” said head coach Dirk Koetter, who praised Winston for competing hard throughout the game despite it.
“We’ve talked about this many times. Jameis, he is gonna make some plays — he made a couple really nice scramble plays today, and he was under pressure all day — that particular one there, in a perfect world, he would have gotten that ball out of his hands but they were on him quick. But we’ve got to remember — he’s 23 years old and experience is still the best teacher.”
Something Winston did do well, and perhaps it’s something he absorbed from watching Fitzpatrick, was taking what the defense gave him. That meant checking down when facing pressure instead of pushing the envelope, trying to get an explosive play. That also meant utilizing Peyton Barber, who stepped in for Doug Martin and rushed for 102 yards — the first time a Bucs running back has eclipsed 100 yards in a game this season.
At 4-8 now, with the Bucs’ hopes of reaching the playoffs slim-to-none, these next four games are a chance for Winston to restore waning confidence in the offense and his ability to lead it — although he has a ways to go before he can achieve that in a season marred by injury and failed expectations.