Thursday, 4 a.m.
The ball spins so pretty in the air, as it is filled with promise. It hangs there just long enough for you to hope. And for a minute, you think about the possibilities.
For a second, you forget about who called the play, or who threw the ball, or who is trying to get open. You don't pay attention the cornerback. After all, the quarterback isn't throwing to him.
And you think, maybe.
If it's Bucs, well, maybe not.
* * *
It was Sept. 7, 1986, and fans were out to see if there was anything different about the Tampa Bay Bucs. There wasn't. Steve DeBerg's fourth pass of the day went to the San Francisco 49ers. So did his seventh. And on and on. In all, DeBerg threw seven interceptions that day, and maybe he would have thrown more if he hadn't been knocked down so often. No one has ever thrown more interceptions in an NFL game.
* * *
It is the emblem of a franchise that often goes the wrong way. A quarterback will drop back, and he'll study the coverage, and he'll look for the
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receiver. And then he'll throw...to the wrong guy. Then the defense is back on the field — sudden change, they call it — and the other team is on the move. Again.
And here we are again, with a mis-directed quarterback trying to fit the ball into a tight space. Too often, he does not. Too often, a defensive back has stripped the team of its opportunity, of its momentum, of its dignity.
Just like that, Winston throws in the middle of doubt. Just like that, he thinks Aqib Talib is his favorite receiver.
If you're a Buc fan, you probably know something about it.
* * *
It was Sept. 2, 1978. Doug Williams had already thrown one pass for the Bucs, but it was incomplete. This time, he was going to try to make the result better. He didn't. On his second pass as professional, Williams was picked off. He was 52 seconds into his career, and the New York Giants' Terry Jackson had taken an interception by Williams 32 yards into the end zone. Touchdown.
* * *
So you ask. Is this going to be a lingering problem for Jameis Winston? Last year, he beat Williams. His first pass as a pro was picked off by Tennessee and returned for a touchdown. He threw seven picks his first four games; this year, he has thrown eight in his first four.
It happens. George Blanda is in the Hall of Fame, and he once threw 42 picks in a season. Vinny Testaverde – remember him? — threw 35. Peyton Manning threw 28. Joe Namath – again, a Hall of Famer – had two seasons with 28 and one with 27.
Yeah, you can have success with a lot of interceptions.
But it isn't likely.
* * *
It was Dec. 6, 2009, and Josh Freeman was starting his sixth career game. Freeman had won only once as a pro, but at least he had thrown only five picks. Against the Panthers, he doubled it. Three of his picks came when the Bucs were getting close to score. The next year, Freeman threw only six interceptions. In his later seasons, Freeman rediscovered the interception.
* * *
So what can Winston do? Well, he can learn. Good quarterbacks throw the ball away. That's why today's interception is harder to live with than those of years ago. He can work. Drew Brees is legendary for his practice drills to improve his accuracy. Sure, Brees still has some forgettable Sundays. But the sharper a quarterback is, the more his interceptions seem like a fluke.
Winston can also lobby for faster receivers and more depth at running back. This is no excuse for the cluster of interceptions that Winston has had, but it is only reason that tells you that the more weapons a team has, and the more separation that his receivers can get, the less likely he is to throw a sloppy interception.
No one is talking about a tipped pass (Winston has two) or an end of the game heave from desperation (Winston against the Cardinals). But two a game is too many. Three in four games is more like it.
* * *
It was October 23 of 1988, and Vinny Testaverde was playing giveway. Testaverde threw six interceptions against the Vikings, a personal low. (He had three five-interception days, all with the Bucs.) “I just played stupid today,” Testaverde said.
* * *
Winston has been here before. Last year started horribly, and he threw four picks against the Panthers (this week's opponent). But Winston then went four straights weeks, and five of six, without an interception. He has prioritize ball protection. It has to be vital to him.
It can happen. Manning cut way down on his interceptions after his first year (he threw more last year after his arm strength had faded).
For now, his scatter-armed nature is the biggest reason to doubt that Winston can deliver on his promise. He can offset his leadership, his competitiveness and his physical talent. If he is going to be special — and everyone hopes that he is — it is the demon he has to conquer.
* * *
Sept. 1, 1996 was a day the Bucs had a lot to lose. And did. It was Tony Dungy's first game ever. It was a day before the vote on Raymond James Stadium. It was the start to a new season. And Trent Dilfer sputtered mightily. He threw four interceptions and left with a rating of 15.7 in a 31-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Somehow, Dungy survived and Raymond James Stadium was built. Still, bad is bad.
* * *
There has never been a curse like interceptions on the Bucs. Not fumbles, not penalties, not sacks. Not even the opposing offenses.
Every quarterback -- every one of them -- has struggled. And interceptions have been the constant problem. The Bucs have seven different seasons with more than 20 interceptions. They've had 20 seasons as bad or worse than Winston's 15 picks a year ago.
Still, here we are again. This time, Winston will beat his turnover problem, or it will beat him.
At this point, it looks like a fight.
Quarterback Year Number
Vinny Testaverde 1988 35
Doug Williams 1979 24
Vinny Testaverde 1989 22
Josh Freeman 2011 22
Jack Thompson 1983 21
Craig Erickson 1993 21
Brad Johnson 2003 21
Trent Dilfer 1996 19
Steve DeBerg 1984 18
Steve DeBerg 1985 18
Vinny Testaverde 1990 18
Josh Freeman 2009 18