If you're expecting Bruce Arians to take Jameis Winston's game to the next level this season -- resuscitating the young quarterback's career in a crucial contract year -- you could be in for a bumpy ride.
The marriage of coach and quarterback in Tampa Bay will almost certainly lead to more yards, more touchdowns and thus more points for the Buccaneers. And, if all goes just right, maybe even a second Pro Bowl nod and a fat new contract for the fifth-year passer. But it could also very well lead to Winston committing an even greater number of turnovers and running for his life.
The two-time Coach of the Year has made his living throwing caution to the wind and taking shots downfield, eschewing the old mantra of three yards and a cloud of dust for "no risk it, no biscuit." His love of chunk-yardage plays meshes well with Winston's propensity to air it out on intermediate and deep routes. In fact, the 2015 No. 1 overall pick has thrown 93(!) more passes of 10-plus air yards than any other quarterback since entering the league, per Pro Football Focus, and that's despite missing eight games over the past two seasons. Although he hasn't been incredibly efficient on these passes, with Next Gen Stats showing he ranks 26th in yards per attempt (9.2 -- just behind Eli Manning) and 21st in passer rating (82.4 -- seven points below Case Keenum) over the past three seasons, that's where B.A.'s QB magic is supposed to make the difference. Sprinkle a bit of fairy biscuit crumbles on Jameis' right arm, and watch his 44:34 TD-to-INT ratio on deep throws suddenly transform into something far more appetizing.
There's no question that Arians-led offenses rack up yards and points and help propel quarterbacks into the limelight. He's worked with, and elicited incredible production from, some of the best to ever do it: future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, as well as multi-time Pro Bowlers Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer. The concern stems from whether the ultra-aggressive coach's unwavering commitment to his scheme, irrespective of personnel, potentially compounds already-problematic areas on a roster.
Because Arians is relentless in his aim to put pressure on opposing defenses, he regularly uses five-step drops to give his quarterback better sightlines and to buy more time for his receivers to run downfield. Palmer ranked sixth in the league in five-step drops and second in passes of 10-plus air yards from 2015 through '16. And the success was evident: The signal-caller was a legitimate MVP candidate in 2015, as the Cardinals boasted the NFL's top-ranked offense and earned a trip to the NFC Championship Game.
But there's a painful flipside to Arians' system. Because it often exchanges pass protectors for additional route runners, it also requires the five guys up front to win one-on-one battles. This approach works well when you have quick-hitting route concepts or a rock-solid offensive line. However, we know short passes are anathema to the Kangol-wearing coach, and the offensive lines he had in Indy and Arizona were questionable at best -- a truth that's certainly not lost on Luck or Palmer. The recently retired Colts QB had 45 more dropbacks under pressure than the next-closest passer in 2012, when Arians served as interim head coach. Similarly, the Cardinals veteran was hit more in 60 games under B.A. than in 122 total games with the Bengals and Raiders (400 hits to 398). His sacks-per-game figure also soared in Arizona, increasing from 1.7 during his nine-year run in Cincinnati and Oakland to 2.3 in his five seasons in the desert.
And here-in lies the potential issue for Winston: The O-line Arians inherited in Tampa is, to put it simply, not good. The head coach went so far as to lambast the unit's performance after the Preseason Week 3 tilt against the Browns, when the quintet was manhandled consistently by Cleveland's defensive front. Anyone expecting Arians' attacking philosophy to change -- even with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich calling the plays -- is misguided. Buccaneers QB2 Ryan Griffin ranked second across the league in five-step drops during the preseason, while 17 of Winston's 39 total dropbacks were five-step drops, per PFF. Both finished the exhibition period in the top 10 in sacks taken (Winston, T-9; Griffin T-2). Let's be honest: Arians is set in his ways. I mean, does the guy in the following video sound like someone who would suddenly transition to a horizontal passing game for the sake of his lackluster offensive line?
The sliver of silver lining in all of this is that Winston has been far more effective at evading pressure in his young career (ranks ninth since 2016, per Next Gen Stats) than late-30s Palmer was with the Cardinals (ranked 27th over his final two seasons of 2016 and '17). So there's a possibility Winston might be able to mitigate the extra heat he'll face operating in Arians' deep-drop scheme. That said, when the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner has been under pressure during the past three seasons, he's produced the fourth-worst passer rating (59.8) and sixth-lowest yards per attempt (5.9).
Arians has, of course, earned the benefit of the doubt that he can fix Winston's shortcomings, but past precedent works both ways. To ignore the warning signs -- B.A.'s slow-developing offense, the Bucs' questionable O-line, Winston's league-leading turnover total since making his rookie debut -- and only focus on the duo's predilection for pushing the ball down field, would paint an incomplete picture. Sure, they may connect on a ton of chunk plays that set off a cacophony of cannon fire at Raymond James Stadium. But it's the potential for repeated misfires -- the sacks, stalled drives, giveaways -- that should have Bucs fans tempering their expectations.