Grantland logo

The Jameis Winston Dilemma: Like It or Not, Florida State’s QB Might Still Be College Football’s Best Player

It might distress some — maybe even most — people to watch Jameis Winston rekindle the Heisman flame, but it shouldn’t surprise them. With a big game against Notre Dame, he’ll be in very good position to emerge with both his undefeated record as a starter and his standing as the most formidable quarterback in the nation intact. Winston’s other, less savory reputation will remain regardless, but unless it actually keeps him off the field, it won’t stand in the way of his potential on it. And that leaves all of us in a very weird place.

It’s another strange week to be Jameis Winston, who is both the most visible player in college football and the player for whom football seems the most beside the point. At the moment, it’s impossible to say with certainty how much longer Winston will even be playing football, at least as the starting quarterback at Florida State.

By Friday, Winston is reportedly required to contact the university’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities to schedule a disciplinary hearing in connection with the December 2012 rape allegation that surfaced last November, darkening the end of his Heisman Trophy and national title campaigns. FSU is also reportedly investigating a cache of Winston autographs in the inventory of the same company behind the indefinite suspension of this year’s former Heisman front-runner, Georgia tailback Todd Gurley.1


1.

Yes, this is more anachronistic NCAA bullshit, but the fundamental idiocy of the rule doesn’t change its implication for a player’s eligibility; Gurley’s coach, Mark Richt, said this week that he doesn’t know when or if his star player will be back this season — or, given that Gurley is eligible for the 2015 draft, whether the runner will wear a Bulldogs uniform again.

In light of Winston’s previous suspension this season, from the Seminoles’ harrowing overtime win over Clemson on September 20, his status for the rest of the year is an ongoing concern. On Tuesday, a handful of Las Vegas sports books halted betting on this weekend’s Notre Dame–Florida State game because, as a spokesman told ESPN, “it doesn’t make sense to keep it up right now” when the cloud over Winston’s head is driving the vast majority of bets toward Notre Dame. The biggest name in the sport is day-to-day with a sordid reputation.

Barring an unlikely, 11th-hour intervention from a higher authority — either the NCAA or the university — all signs out of Tallahassee (as opposed to Vegas) point to Winston remaining in the starting lineup against the Fighting Irish and for the foreseeable future. For his part, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher’s reaction to the renewed speculation over his MVP’s standing has bordered on exasperation.

On Monday, Fisher dismissed any suggestion that the mere existence of Winston’s signature on memorabilia posed a threat to his eligibility (“There’s thousands of things out there with his name … He’s never taken a dime from anything”) and refused to betray concern over the persistence of the rape allegation that’s loomed over the program for nearly a year. “There’s nothing new out there. We’ve been through this,” Fisher said, adding: “This country is based on being innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent. I don’t want [any victims] … but there is no victim because there was no crime. We’re [publicly] convicting a guy over things that are not true based on evidence. There is no evidence.”

Yes, you may be thinking, and the Tallahassee police made certain of it. But for the time being, it appears Winston has eluded the storm of intrigue and outrage, allowing him to chalk up the furor as one more example of “adversity” to be overcome on the way to another championship and much greater fame and fortune at the next level. What a valuable learning experience the past 12 months will have been for him.

All of which is to say: On the eve of his team’s biggest game of the season — against an undefeated, top-five opponent in a meeting with far-reaching implications for the national championship — writing about the most visible player in college football from a strictly football perspective is a dicey proposition. It’s redundant — breaking news, the reigning Heisman winner is really good — and it requires unpacking a small aircraft’s worth of baggage before we can even begin to contemplate what’s behind the decline in Winston’s touchdown percentage. Even NFL scouts, who hardly occupy the ethical high ground these days, are developing concerns about Winston’s maturity that are supplanting their infatuation with his obvious talent. Amid the backdrop of Ray Rice and “affirmative consent” codes on college campuses, Winston’s off-field issues are the proverbial elephant in the stadium every time he takes the field.

As long as he is on the field, though, Winston remains arguably the most indispensable player in the nation. With him, Florida State is a substantial favorite to win every game it plays and repeat as national champion.2 Without him, Florida State is just another Top 25 team trying to keep its head above water with a three-star quarterback, a mediocre running game, and a suddenly vulnerable defense. Either way, the remainder of the 2014 season will be shaped more indelibly by Winston’s game than by anyone else’s, whether due to his presence or his absence.


2.

This weekend, sportsbooks that still list the game peg the Seminoles as 10- to 12-point favorites over Notre Dame, probably the narrowest spread the Noles will face in the next six games; overall, the betting site Bovada places FSU’s current odds of taking the championship in January at 6/1, best in the nation despite the team’s fall from the top spot of both major polls last weekend.

So while he’s still on the field, let’s delve deeper into what his presence means for the defending champs this weekend and beyond.

jameis-winston-florida-state-2-triGrant Halverson/Getty Images

In 2013, Winston was so good so soon as a redshirt freshman that the superlatives could barely keep pace. As a team, Florida State ranked second nationally in scoring offense and set an FBS record with 723 points for the season; combined with the nation’s no. 1 scoring defense, the Seminoles won every regular-season game by at least two touchdowns3 and boasted one of the five highest margins of victory (39.5 points per game) since World War II. Individually, Winston led the nation in pass efficiency, turning in the fifth-best single-season rating in FBS history (184.9). With a better supporting cast, Winston nearly surpassed both passers in his first.


3.

The only other team to win every game by at least 14 points in the BCS era (1998-2013) was the 2004 Utah Utes, under head coach Urban Meyer.

In 2014? Unsurprisingly, the burden of following up such a smashing debut has proven to be a little like being assigned to follow James Brown onstage in 1964:

jameis-winston-passing-chart-tri

The conventional wisdom this preseason presumed that Winston set the bar too high in 2013 to clear this year, so a general regression to the mean is no surprise. Yet relative to the rest of the country, Winston still ranks among the top dozen passers in overall efficiency, ahead of Baylor’s Bryce Petty and Winston’s counterpart on Saturday, Notre Dame’s Everett Golson. And if you’ve actually watched Florida State this season, you don’t need a chart to know it’s falling well short of juggernaut expectations across the board, particularly on defense.

Still, in several areas, the dips in Winston’s production really stand out: Although he’s putting the ball in the air about 36 percent more often this year than he did in 2013, and completing those passes at a slightly higher rate, far fewer of them are going for big gains or touchdowns. Winston’s interception percentage hasn’t risen at nearly the same rate as his touchdown percentage and yards per pass have declined, and mostly for that reason, his 25-plus-point drop in efficiency is one of the largest declines of any returning starter in the nation.

Ironically, some of that apparent regression may be due to Winston’s improvement when it comes to getting rid of the ball under pressure. As noted by ESPN’s David M. Hale, opposing defenses aren’t getting to Winston nearly as often on blitzes this year as they did in 2013, but they are forcing him to settle for much safer throws against the blitz, mitigating the damage downfield (emphasis added):

Winston is being blitzed at roughly the same rate [in 2014] as last season and completing roughly the same percentage of passes against the blitz, but a couple of numbers have changed dramatically. … Last season, Winston was sacked 13 times when blitzed (once for every 10 pass attempts), while this season, he’s been sacked just once (with 56 pass attempts) against the blitz. The difference is he’s checking down quicker instead of looking for the big play downfield. His yards-per-attempt vs. the blitz has fallen from 11.8 to 8.1, and his percentage of throws of 10 yards or more on plays when the opposition brings the blitz has dropped from 53 percent to 36 percent.

Winston’s overall sack rate has improved from one sack in every 16.4 dropbacks as a freshman to one in every 24.6 as a sophomore, which likely has more to do with faster mental processing in the pocket than any leap forward by his offensive line: Even with four returning starters up front who had combined for 105 career starts entering the season, FSU’s running backs have gone from averaging a healthy 6.5 yards per carry on non-quarterback runs in 2013 to 5.1 this year, a decline of more than 20 percent; they’re averaging just 2.4 yards before contact, down from 3.8 last year. That’s all relevant to Winston, who has a significantly better stat line this season on first down and second down — i.e., conventional rushing downs — and (like all quarterbacks) benefits from play-action when the defense is forced to respect the run.

The relationship is symbiotic, but with throws like that one, it’s safe to assume the ground game benefits far, far more from the respect that defenses are forced to pay Winston than vice versa. With Winston out of the lineup against Clemson and backup Sean Maguire not presenting much of a threat to the Tigers’ secondary downfield, FSU running backs managed a grand total of 38 yards rushing in regulation on 2.0 per carry.4 In three subsequent games (against ACC opponents NC State, Wake Forest, and Syracuse; not the cream of the crop, admittedly), non-quarterback runs have netted 158 yards per game on 5.5 per carry, roughly in line with FSU’s output in conference games in 2013. The offense’s productivity as a whole is down relative to last year, but the share of that productivity directly attributable to Winston’s right arm is up, even when he’s not throwing.


4.

Senior Karlos Williams subsequently tacked on 25 yards in overtime en route to the game-winning touchdown.

In fact, while it’s very easy to dwell on the numbers — and on certain, specific mistakes, like Winston’s tendency to telegraph throws by staring down his intended receiver — I’d argue that Winston’s absence from the Clemson game offered a better gauge of his value to Florida State than anything he’s actually done on the field this season. After that contest, Fisher praised his team’s toughness and willingness to fight back from certain doom, etc., which is an understandable reaction.

But the box score (where Clemson outgained FSU by more than 100 total yards in regulation) and the sequence of improbable events that propelled the game to overtime (a Clemson defender falling down on a crucial touchdown pass; a Clemson runner coughing up the ball with the game-winning field goal seemingly in hand) painted a very stark picture of where the Seminoles stand without their bell cow. Maguire’s final pass attempt of the night was a dagger of an interception that set the Tigers up for the clincher; if not for the aforementioned fumble, the current discussion about Florida State’s prospects for the playoff, or even for supremacy in an ostensibly watered-down ACC,5 would be very different, and the stakes for the rest of the season would take on a decidedly humbler tone.


5.

Had Clemson not gacked away the win, the Tigers would be undefeated in conference play with a one-game edge on the Noles in the Atlantic Division, plus the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Last year, Winston was the best player in the nation, but probably didn’t need to be for FSU to run the table: Prior to the BCS title game, only one regular-season opponent scored more than 17 points, and a majority were held to seven points or fewer. Four starters from the 2013 defense were subsequently drafted in the first five rounds in May, including All-Americans Lamarcus Joyner and Timmy Jernigan. This year, the Seminoles rank 43rd in total defense and have already allowed 31 points to Oklahoma State and 41 to NC State in legitimately close calls. They needed an above-the-fold effort from their quarterback in those games, and they got it: Winston accounted for 741 total yards (74 percent of FSU’s output) against the Cowboys and Wolfpack, with six touchdowns. Down 24-7 in the first quarter at NC State, Florida State stormed back and pulled away in the second half with five touchdowns on its last six full possessions. Winston committed three of the Noles’ four turnovers in Raleigh, but they would have never made it out alive without him.

jameis-winston-florida-state-3-triDon Juan Moore/Getty Images

This weekend will mark one year since Florida State’s best performance of 2013, an eye-opening, 51-14 massacre over then–no. 3 Clemson that vaulted Winston to the top of the Heisman charts and his team onto the championship short list. That night was the culmination of the Seminoles’ dominance, on their biggest stage of the regular season. Whatever caveats or barriers to their ascendance that had seemed to exist over the first half of the season disintegrated by halftime. They weren’t challenged again until the championship game.

The most unsettling prospect for Notre Dame — and for every other outfit with playoff ambitions in this crazy-ass season — is that we’ve yet to see the 2014 Noles or their quarterback at that level. Despite losing so many contributors to the NFL, this FSU team remains as talented on paper as the squad that obliterated all comers last year and carried the same expectations into this season. But at no point in the first six games has it made good on those expectations for more than a quarter or two at a time. Winston has been consumed by self-inflicted melodrama off the field and has tried to do a little too much on it. The defense has been a wreck. The demotion in the polls may have had more to do with voters feeling obliged to reward upstart Mississippi State for its successive victories over three top-10 opponents, but it was also an implicit rebuke to the Seminoles for repeatedly failing to look how a no. 1 team is supposed to look through the first six games.

But does that necessarily mean that some crucial ingredient is missing, or merely that it hasn’t yet been found? Last week’s 38-20 decision over Syracuse came with Winston’s best stat line of the season (30-of-36 for 317 yards, three touchdowns, zero turnovers) and was the most reminiscent to date of the routine drubbings we’ve come to expect FSU to deliver against ACC also-rans. Notre Dame, meanwhile, was last seen allowing 43 points6 and 510 yards of total offense in a closer-than-expected win over North Carolina, one week after it came within one play of being upended by Stanford. The closest the Irish have come to putting together a complete, dominant game was the 31-0 shutout they pitched against Michigan on September 6, and that’s only if you still think pitching a shutout against Michigan’s moribund offense is anything to write home about.


6.

That total includes a touchdown by the UNC defense.

It might distress some — maybe even most — people to watch Winston rekindle the Heisman flame, but it shouldn’t surprise them. With a big game against the Irish, he’ll be in very good position to emerge with both his undefeated record as a starter and his standing as the most formidable quarterback in the nation intact. Winston’s other, less savory reputation will remain regardless, but unless it actually keeps him off the field, it won’t stand in the way of his potential on it.