TAMPA — It is one of the most honest moments of the season, captured in the first Hard Knocks episode. Jameis Winston is having a frank conversation with coach Dirk Koetter, seated behind his desk in his office at One Buc Place.
"I just want to have a good understanding of how much is doing too much?’’ Winston asks, leaning closer as if waiting to hear a play call.
Koetter doesn’t hesitate.
"You are a guy who’s good enough to win a game. But also we don’t need you to lose a game for us,’’ Koetter said. "You’re the only guy that can really lose a game for us because no one touches the ball enough. So there’s a fine line there and you’re a great competitor, but we’ve got to get some patience in there. Now we need you to be a great quarterback.’’
Winston hasn’t been a great quarterback. It’s one of the main reasons that the Bucs don’t have a great record at 4-9 entering their game Monday at home against the Falcons. But he hasn’t been terrible, either.
In fact, his performance — before and after a right shoulder injury — provides evidence of some improvement.
Ultimately, the decision of whether to keep Koetter and the current coaching staff will largely come down to whether the Glazer family believes Winston is progressing. So how do you judge a 23-year-old developing quarterback? A look at some of the factors:
The won-loss record should be very important, but it’s a team game.
Winston tied the game or gave the Bucs the lead in the fourth quarter of four games this season -- against the Giants, Bills, Packers and Lions. They won only one, beating the Giants 25-23.
Without a pass rush, it’s impossible to close out games in the NFL. The pressure to score more, especially on the road, has been a burden.
Well, the completion percentage (62.6) and passer efficiency rating (89.7) are career highs.
A year ago, his 86.1 passer rating was 42nd, so you could argue the arrow is up.
But Winston is the 33rd rated passer in the NFL, behind his young peers — Deshaun Watson (17th), Carson Wentz (18), Jared Goff (20) and Dak Prescott (29). His touchdown/interception ratio (14/8) has remained flat.
THE EYE TEST
Winston looks calmer in the pocket at times, but the Bucs still have notoriously slow starts, scoring an average of 8.2 points in the first half of all their games.
Hey, the guy was willing to play hurt. He wanted to be on the field with his teammates, although it became apparent he couldn’t make all the throws.
Then there was the whole bad optic at New Orleans of eating W’s and licking his fingers which has become his personal crying Jordan meme. He also drew a personal foul in that game against the Saints for poking cornerback Marshon Lattimore, which led to Mike Evans getting suspended for plowing into Lattimore
But overall, Koetter sees growth.
"Look at the three quarterbacks we have left to face in our own division — the last two MVPs and a Super Bowl winner. Then (we faced) Matthew Stafford last week (and saw) his growth," Koetter said. "He has been in the league eight years already and I think he is a similar guy to Jameis — first pick in the draft. It just takes some time.
"I think Jameis is doing some things very well and he is also some making some mistakes, as we all are, that we need to improve on."
What’s disappointing for the Bucs about Winston is that they believed they improved their receiving corps, adding speed with DeSean Jackson and big targets with tight end O.J. Howard and receiver Chris Godwin to go with receivers Mike Evans, Adam Humphries and tight end Cameron Brate.
Something hasn’t clicked. The offensive line, reconfigured with Ali Marpet moving to center and J.R. Sweezy at guard has produced an ineffective running game. There are clear signs that the problems run deeper than Winston.
However, something is keeping Winston from scaling the fortress where elite quarterbacks reside. Some at One Buc Place point to two areas where Winston has not improved: He hasn’t learned to protect the football under duress and he isn’t very good throwing the deep ball.
The line between aggressive and reckless can be razor thin in the NFL. Winston hasn’t learned to walk it. He has 53 turnovers in 41 games.
The fumble at Green Bay that was returned for a touchdown in the second quarter was a 10-point swing in a game the Bucs lost 26-20 in overtime. Last Sunday, he had two more interceptions and lost another fumble trying to make a play when he probably should’ve eaten the football in a three-point loss to Detroit.
Every turnover has a story and these weren’t all Winston’s fault. They rarely are. But he still tries to make every play.
Jackson consistently has gotten behind the defense but his 13.4 yard average is more than four yards per catch lower than his career average. In addition, Winston has only two completions of more than 40 yards which is 30th in the league.
A year ago, Winston was 12th in passing yards with 4,090 and seventh in touchdown passes with 28. At his current pace, over a 16-game season (he missed three starts with the shoulder injury), he would’ve finished with about 3,960 yards passing, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
The Bucs needed Winston to be great and he wasn’t. He may not have taken a big step backward, but his progress slowed as the result of injury and other factors.
How much of this falls on Koetter remains to be seen.
Their relationship came under scrutiny with an NFL.com report that Winston was "not in a good place." Both have denied it. In fact, Koetter had defended Winston, falling back one of his familiar refrains — Winston’s age. He is, after all, seven months younger than Prescott and a year younger than Wentz.
"Jameis is 23,’’ Koetter said. "And experience is always the best teacher.’’
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud