Among Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy’s favorite messages to his team was, “Never do anything to put yourself or your organization in a bad light.”
Jameis Winston has had a hard time following that advice, and it’s about to bite the quarterback and the Buccaneers.
Winston reportedly is expected to be hit with a three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy in an alleged groping incident with a female Uber driver two years ago. Winston has issued a strong denial and was not charged in the case, but NFL investigators apparently have found enough evidence to punish him. His background, including multiple incidents at Florida State, does not give him the benefit of the doubt.
During my years as an NFL general manager, I fortunately was never in the position with my starting QB in which Jason Licht finds himself now. But I can imagine the Tampa Bay GM’s pain. Winston has done what franchise quarterbacks are not supposed to do — put his team in a precarious position on and off the field.
The potential suspension comes in a season on which both the quarterback and the team have a lot riding. Coming off a 5-11 season, the Bucs’ non-playoff streak has reached 10 years. That makes team ownership antsy.
Winston has shown flashes of the talent that led Tampa to draft him first overall in 2015 despite the character questions from his college days. But he has been an average quarterback overall with an 87.2 rating over his first three seasons and a record of 18-27 as starter with no playoff appearances.
Tampa Bay has added talent via free agency and the draft, but if Winston misses the first three games, the playoff run Licht, Winston and coach Dirk Koetter need to preserve their jobs will be that much more difficult to make in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions.
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If Winston does not avoid off-field transgressions and improve his play, the Buccaneers will have to question whether they want to keep him for his fifth season in 2019, when he has a $20.9 million option year that is currently only guaranteed for injury. And if Winston wants to join the $30 million-plus-per-year franchise quarterback club, he definitely needs to amp up his play and stay trouble-free.
These concerns keep a GM up at night. When the QB to whom Licht has hitched his wagon has issues on and off the field, it makes it harder for the GM and team to plan for the long term.
In retrospect, if I were Licht, I would be thinking I should have drafted Marcus Mariota over Winston. Mariota has marginally better numbers and led the Titans to the playoffs last season (with a wild-card win over the Chiefs). He also is a solid citizen who is extremely likable. Winston had been the more durable player through their first two seasons until he missed three games with a shoulder injury last year.
Winston and Mariota both are leaders and have the potential to be consistent Pro Bowlers, but the trust factor in terms of behavior is much higher for the Titans with Mariota. And none of the other up-and-coming quarterbacks (Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Derek Carr, Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson) have the off-field baggage Winston carries. That’s a huge factor for team execs as they consider mammoth contracts for their quarterbacks.
Regardless of whether Winston is innocent of the groping charge as he claims, he certainly is guilty of bad judgment. He put himself in a situation on the night in question where he was allegedly intoxicated in public and in the company of a then-accused rapist (later convicted and now serving 15 years in prison) in Brandon Banks.
Because Licht and Koetter are tied to Winston at least for the short term, they should have a long talk with their QB. They need to make extra sure he understands what’s at stake. They must emphasize that Winston needs to play at a much higher level whenever his season begins. He also needs to be a model citizen in an ongoing attempt to change his negative image to that of a maturing young man who has learned from his mistakes.
If Winston gets his act together to the point where the Bucs are negotiating an extension, I would advise Licht or his successor to insert strong penalty clauses in the next contract. Any league suspensions not only would cost Winston pro-rated game checks, but they would force major giveback of signing bonus and void a good portion of his guarantees. That’s what I did to grab the attention of a player who had a shaky past.
A possible scenario if the Bucs decide to keep Winston next year: They could ask to see one more season of strong performance on and off the field and make him play out the option year. They could then hit him with the franchise tag and have him play in 2020 under its terms (which might make Winston disgruntled) or do the long-term deal prior to that season.
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The good news for Winston is he has an excellent supporting cast with a dynamic group of receivers led by Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard. Tampa Bay also added a talented, second-round back in Ronald Jones and fortified its offensive line with the signing of center Ryan Jensen. The defense should be improved with line acquisitions Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry. The opportunity seemingly is there if Winston can take advantage and reclaim his winning pedigree from a college career that saw him win a national championship and a Heisman Trophy.
Damage has been done, but Winston is not yet irreparable. He faces a challenge of making the commitment off the field to gain Tampa Bay’s faith in his future while improving his play.
More than $150 million are on the line. So are a lot of jobs, including that of Winston.
Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on Negotiation and Sports Business/Sports Management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.