Monday, 3 a.m.
Two years in, and what are we to make of Jameis Winston?
Do you think he's the Bucs' best player, and the team needs to only to surround him with more weapons? Do you think he might be the best player to ever take a snap at quarterback here? Do you think he's still the team's best chance at winning?
Well, all the evidence you need to support your argument was on display Sunday.
Or, if you're still a critic, do you think he throws too many interceptions? Do you think he needs to be more precise? Do you think his offense has miles to go before this team can be considered a playoff team.
That, too, had its share of evidence Sunday. The Bucs won, 17-16, and they finished with a winning record at 9-7. But for most of the day, the team was sleep-walking through the finale. Tampa Bay won, but only after Carolina tight end Greg Olson slipped while running a route on a two-point conversion. Nothing felt convincing about the Bucs' final argument.
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Winston won. That's all.
Sue me, but I'm a Winston guy. I think he finds something when the game is on the line. I think he stops the silliness and find a way to win. I think he transforms from ballerina to ballplayer, from celebrity to competitor, and he bloodies his knuckles. I think that when the game is on the line, he's at his best.
Consider Sunday. Most of the afternoon was an argument that Winston needs to be sharper. He threw an interception and 14 incompletions, and the Bucs ran around in tiny little circles like the players in Electric Football. The end zone was hazy in the distance; heck, a first down was too much to ask for.
“When you look at our offensive team, Jameis, Mike, Ali, Donovan Smith, four guys you can really build around,” coach Kirk Koetter said. “I think you can throw Kevin Pamphile into there. You could throw Cameron Brate into that mix. We've got a good nucleus of guys to build around. We have to add some playmakers and we have to add some speed. That's just a fact.”
For the Bucs' first 10 drives, the team got only a field goal. Considering that Roberto Aguayo is the Ronda Rousey of kickers, even that was a lot to ask. But for 10 drives, the Bucs trailed 10-3, and finishing with a three-game losing streak seemed probable.
And then, on the team's 11th drive of the day, Winston smelled the victory. He woke up, and he woke his team up. He led his team on a 74-yard drive to the end zone, hitting five of six passes for 72 of the yards. (Jacquizz had a two-yard run, thank you very much.)
The rest was Winston. He hit Russell Shepard for 20 yards. He hit Mike Evans for 16. He hit Shepard for nine. He hit Adam Humphries (his 10th reception) for 17. He threw an incompletion (Evans turned defender on the play). He rolled out, and looked about to run for the corner, and then threw to Evans for 10 yards and the touchdown.
"We just needed it," Winston said.
And the Bucs won. Oh, they had to survive the Panthers' two-point conversion, but they won. It was his sixth game-winning drive, his fourth fourth-quarter comeback. Consider this: Before that drive, Winston had a rating of 49.49. Afterward, he had a 71.4.
Two years in, and what are we to think of Winston?
He isn't perfect. But he competes his rear off,which makes up for a lot of flaws. He is unquestionably the leader of this team. He has back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons, and no Buc quarterback has ever thrown for more than his 28 touchdowns. Only Andrew Luck has thrown for more yards in his first two seasons than Winston. Only four players – Dan Marino, Derek Carr, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson -- have thrown for more than his 50 touchdowns.
There are warts. Winston is still a work in progress. But he is making progress. This team will grown up as he does.
Winston says he thinks his team can make the playoffs next year. When asked why, he seemed taken aback.
"Why would I not think that's normal?" Winston said. "Why would I settle for less? Why would I want to be sitting at home when other teams are continuing to play football? I don't think there's any part of me that would be wanting to sit at home. If you're not doing it to be the best, then why are you doing it?"
I'll repeat this: The Bucs desperately need more offensive weapons around him. Mike Evans can play. Adam Humphries is better than he's given credit for. Cameron Brate can play. But the Bucs need a threat at running back. They could use another receiver. They could use another offensive lineman.
I'll say this, though. After two seasons, I think Winston is more of a real deal than Josh Freeman. He's better than Doug Williams. He's better than Brad Johnson, and Trent Dilfer, and Vinny Testaverde. Two years in, and what you hope Winston will be beats anything else this team has had.
Most of all, they need someone besides Winston to occasionally be their best offensive player.
Do that, and this could grow into the playoffs next year.
Do not, and it will be the failure of a franchise.