Winston makes his case for staying in Tampa Bay
Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Times, published 16 December 2019|
Jameis Winston and his Bucs teammates had just dropped a few records in Motown, where the hits just kept on coming. Linebacker Shaquil Barrett's first-quarter sack gave him 16½, tying him with Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp for the franchise record held since 2000.
Rookie cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting sealed the Bucs' fourth straight victory when he returned an interception 70 yards into the end zone where 40 family members were going crazy for the Detroit native. But nobody was in a sweeter rhythm Sunday than Winston, and he knew it when he stepped to the postgame podium.
Playing with a fractured thumb on his right (throwing) hand that prevented him from picking up a football until Friday, Winston passed for 458 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-17 win over the Lions. It topped the career-high that Winston set of 456 yards the previous week in a win over the Colts, making him the first player in NFL history to pass for at least 450 yards in consecutive weeks. His 30 touchdown passes also reset his own 2016 franchise single-season mark.
Winston's timing is perfect considering he only has two more games to convince the Bucs he should be their quarterback for at least 2020, if not beyond. "I hope I helped myself," he said, "because I definitely want to be here in Tampa."
Though brief, it was the first public acknowledgment that Winston hopes his recent performances will result in him remaining with the Bucs rather than becoming a free agent in March. If there are still any fence-sitters about whether the Bucs need to find a way to lock up Winston and Barrett for 2020, well, put on the tape of the past two games.
For the second game in a row and the fifth time this season, Winston threw an interception on the team's first series. Yes, he leads the NFL with a career-high 24 interceptions.
Not only did he overcome that, but top receiver Mike Evans was out with a hamstring injury, backup Scotty Miller had to leave after he aggravated his hamstring in the first quarter on a 33-yard catch for his first NFL touchdown, and No. 2 receiver Chris Godwin went down in the third with a hamstring injury that "doesn't look good," coach Bruce Arians said.
Oh, and the Bucs were without left tackle Donovan Smith, whose knee injury forced him to miss his first game in five seasons, ending a streak of 77 starts.
"I thought he was fantastic," Arians said of Winston. "Just give them one (interception) and let's go play and let's win the game. That first quarter was lights-out. Every ball was on the money. I can't say enough about him."
Shaking off the interception, Winston passed for 221 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter, the most passing yards in the first quarter in the league this season and the third most in the NFL the past 40 years — behind only Peyton Manning (247) and Jim Kelly (229).
Winston had discomfort gripping the ball. Going into the game, trainer Bobby Slater fashioned a customized glove that Winston wore on his right hand to give him extra protection and support. "It's just squeezing (the football), it's always going to hurt," Winston said. "But it's not about me. It's about this team. I'm going to do my best to get healthy. A lot of us are going to do our best to get healthy. We're kind of low on receivers right now. I'm just happy we won this game."
They won because the Bucs defense dominated the first half as Winston built a 24-3 lead. Barrett tied Sapp's record when he came off the edge to sack the Lions' David Blough. "Tell Shaq welcome to the club, but work not done!" Sapp texted to the Tampa Bay Times after the game.
The debate used to be about which player the Bucs can least afford to let out of Tampa Bay —Winston or Barrett? The correct answer is quickly becoming neither. Winston is in the final year of a contract that pays him $20.9 million. A long-term deal might still seem unlikely, but the franchise tag would pay him between $25 million and $27 million on a one-year contract.
Nobody expected a record-setting season from Barrett when the Bucs signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal as a free agent from the Broncos. He had only had 14 sacks in five seasons with Denver as an apprentice to great pass rushers such as Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
But Barrett started the season on fire, with nine sacks in his first four games. His six forced fumbles also are the most in the league.
"I love having my name etched in stone next to (Sapp's) name," Barrett said. "I'd love to be the (leader). That's my goal going into the next game.”
The Bucs have until March to sort all that out. Usually, teams have to decide whether to use either a franchise tag or a transition-player tag. The first guarantees a player the average salary of the top-five highest players at their position in exchange for essentially forgoing free agency.
The transition tag guarantees the team right of first refusal to match any offer the player might take with another team. It is a one-year contract equal to the average salary of the top-10 players in the league at the player's position. Because 2020 is the last year of the collective bargaining agreement, the Bucs will have use of both the franchise and transition tags.
Arians might have lost all the Bucs' leverage after the game when asked about Barrett's future. "He ain't going anywhere," the coach said.
"I like that," Barrett said. "I think I'll be here for sure. I like it here. They like me here. I don't want to go nowhere, man."
It will get tougher for Winston and the Bucs. They play Saturday against the Texans, who are 9-5 and lead the AFC South. Godwin, Evans and Miller might be out. Even so, games like Sunday's just make it more obvious that Winston and Barrett are record-setting players. You don't let those artists sign with another label.