What will Tampa Bay do about Jameis Winston?

If you’d somehow awoken from a 10-year coma and the first thing you saw was Sunday’s Giants-Bucs game — well, first, you’d wonder what Eli Manning was doing still on the sideline, but beyond that, you’d have to assume that Jameis Winston was the NFL’s greatest quarterback right now. (You’d definitely have a LOT of other questions, but let’s stick with the NFL.)

Lost in the well-deserved accolades for the Giants’ Daniel Jones and the heads-banging-on-tables final-kick catastrophe for Tampa Bay was the fact that Winston played one hell of a ballgame. He and Mike Evans connected for three touchdowns, passes that were brilliant and pinpoint, the kinds of throws that only a handful of QBs could make under pressure.

The dude still can’t deliver a pregame speech to save his life, but damn, he was throwing balls into mail slots Sunday afternoon: 380 yards, three TDs, 112.2 QBR. He brought Tampa Bay right to the Giants’ doorstep with a 44-yard dime to Evans with just seconds remaining. You know what happened next, but that’s not Winston’s fault.

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And with every flawless pass, with every dodge-and-heave that somehow ended up right on Evans’ fingertips, the question grew: what the hell are the Buccaneers going to do about Jameis Winston?

(Yahoo Sports illustration by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports illustration by Paul Rosales)

Should Winston stay or should he go?

From one angle, it’d be a lot better for the Bucs if Winston was just flat-out terrible across the board. Instead, every so often Winston will go and do what he did on Sunday, and the Bucs come down with a vicious case of the what-ifs all over again. What if we sign him and he stays this inconsistent? What if we let him go and he leads somebody else to a championship? As always with Winston, every possible outcome is on the table.

Winston’s playing on the final year of his rookie contract, just like Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota. When they came into the league, they were supposed to be the next Brady and Peyton — or, at least, the next Philip Rivers and Eli. Instead, both QBs have been maddeningly inconsistent — too good to cut, not good enough to get to the next level. Both are playing for their jobs even as the QB duo drafted a year after them — Carson Wentz and Jared Goff — have already signed big-bag extensions.

Whether because of his demeanor, his maybe-this’ll-work playing style, or his baffling off-field problems, Winston still seems to get the benefit of the doubt — as in, he’s still working things out, once he settles in, he’ll be fine.

But we’re well past that, well past the “potential” stage with Winston. He is who he is: a maddeningly inconsistent quarterback whose highs put him among the best in the league, and whose lows make you wonder if he belongs in the league at all.

Jameis by the numbers

In the box score, Winston’s every bit the enigma he appears to the eyes. Among all QBs over the last four-plus seasons who have started at least 16 games, according to Pro Football Reference, Winston ranks 11th in total yardage (15,410 yards) and 12th in yards per game (261.2). That’s great! Top third of the league!

That’s the shot, here’s the chaser. His QB rating of 87.7 ranks 27th, and he’s 34th in pass completion percentage (61.49), suggesting he slings an awful lot of passes that don’t find their target. Worse, they find the wrong target: he’s got the fourth-worst interception percentage over that span — 3.07 percent of all of his passes were intercepted; only Ryan Fitzpatrick, Blaine Gabbert and Baker Mayfield have been worse in the last four-plus seasons.

Over the last 11 drafts, eight quarterbacks have gone first overall. Two — Mayfield and Kyler Murray — we can move aside as incomplete. But Goff and Cam Newton have reached a Super Bowl, and Andrew Luck was one deflate-gate’d game from it. That leaves Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford and Winston, and even Stafford has reached the playoffs on three occasions. A No. 1 overall quarterback is no guarantee, but you wouldn’t be wrong to expect Winston to have a lot gaudier resume than he does right now.

It’s worth noting that the arrival of Bruce Arians portends good things for Winston’s stats, if nothing else. Both Winston and Arians are fans of the sling-it-and-see-what-happens ethos, and if Sunday is any indication, Tampa Bay fans are in for entire games that look like two-minute offenses. That’ll translate to big numbers, and possibly a big contract for Winston, but will it translate to wins?

New contract for Winston, or not?

Tampa Bay has kicked this particular can down the road for almost five years now, and the team’s in a tough spot. Either option — ending the Jameis Winston era or stretching it another five years — brings immense risk with little hope of payout. Right now, the Bucs are standing in the middle of a casino with a $20 bill they need to turn into airfare to get home. Which way to go?

For instance, if you’re Tampa Bay, what do you do if you cut ties with Winston? (Sign Mariota, ha ha ha.) As every week in the NFL shows, it’s not like there’s a whole herd of NFL-ready quarterbacks just milling about waiting to be signed. The Bucs could gamble on a Tua Tagovailoa or a Jalen Hurts or a Justin Herbert in the draft, but that assumes Tampa Bay would be either 1) bad enough to be in position to draft one of those three or 2) willing to give up the assets needed to move up. That doesn’t even begin to address the difficulty of handing a rookie a garden hose and expecting them to put out an already-flaming trash fire.

In all likelihood, the Bucs will still be in this exact same position three months from now: looking at a quarterback who’s both too infuriating and inconsistent to sign to a nine-figure deal, and also too talented to cut loose without any compensation. The cost to keep him will be high. The cost to let him go — in lost progress and lost seasons — could be even higher.

What would you do?

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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