If I were building an NFL team, I’d rather have Jameis Winston than Andrew Luck. There, I said it. Heresy, right? I know, I know. Just hear me out, though…
First of all, this is a 51-49 thing. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Luck turned out to be the better player. Even saying that feels like a bold statement though, especially considering the media narratives that have developed around each of them.
Let’s start with Luck. He is quite clearly an intelligent young man with a fairly low-key personality and nearly unlimited upside. His IQ, body, arm, accuracy, and mobility are pretty much what you would come up with if you were devising a QB from scratch in a lab. Throw in the humble, aww-shucks personality and a half dozen or so thrilling fourth-quarter comebacks and it makes sense why the hype machine is on full tilt. This kid hits all the boxes for your average middle-aged (usually white) professional sports-opinion-giver (think Mike Greenberg).
Because of this, it is widely accepted in the football media world that Luck is the next guy at the position. Just listen to Trent Dilfer at the 1:56 mark here talking about Luck as the most complete player he has ever evaluated.
Just because he has the potential to be the perfect player doesn’t mean that he will be though. The single most important trait in a QB is decision-making in the pocket, and Luck struggles with that. Architecture degrees from Stanford, neck beards, and flip phones don’t mean much when the pocket is closing in and you have to decide which receiver to throw to across the middle. Does intelligence help? Obviously. Same with studying. But it’s mostly instinct, which can’t be measured quantitatively, except indirectly through interceptions. Dan Marino scored 15 on the Wonderlic; Ryan Fitzpatrick, 49.
The consensus assumes that Luck’s decision-making will improve. I’m not so sure. Before getting hurt last season, his fourth, Luck threw for 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in seven games with a 55.3% completion percentage. Aaron Rodgers has only thrown as many as 13 interceptions once in his career, and it was in his first year as starter. A 2-1 TD-INT ratio is the minimum baseline for elite QBs in the modern NFL, and the super elite – like Brady and Rodgers, among whom Luck must end up to fulfill his promise – are far better than that. He may get there someday, but assuming he will “just because” doesn’t make much sense. Poor decision-making in big spots can (and will) knock the most talented of QBs down a peg or two in status and accomplishment.
That being said, most signs point to Luck being a borderline Hall-of-Famer at worst. Just too much talent, and oh, by the way, football writers decide who makes it. So does that mean that I think Jameis Winston will become a Hall of Fame quarterback? Yes – and let me tell you why…
It starts with explaining why I think most of the knocks on his football potential are bullshit. Let’s just get the elephant in the room out of the way first. Ben Roethlisberger has been accused of perpetrating at least two sexual assaults during his time in the NFL. He was also accused in a memorable Sports Illustrated article of acting like an immature shithead on regular occasion early in his career, before supposedly calming down in recent years. Do you know how many Super Bowl rings he has? (Two.) Is there any doubt he’s been an integral leader for the Steelers over a decade plus? That his teammates have bought into him enough – mostly because of his talent and toughness – to consistently remain competitive? Is he almost certainly going to Canton? Would your favorite team have traded their QB for him over the past 10 years?
I saw Winston’s accuser give her side of the story in the groundbreaking documentary “The Hunting Ground” and I found her quite credible. Also, like with Big Ben, there have been confirmed reports of his immaturity. But the Pittsburgh captain himself is a walking, breathing example of why it won’t necessarily hurt Winston’s chances to reach his full potential as a player. Football leadership characteristics have far less to do with moral character than most of us would like to admit.
Whatever you think of Winston, there is no doubt that he’s exhibited consistently dynamic leadership in a team setting, going back to high school. Quite simply, I don’t think NFL players give a fuck about the nighttime proclivities, legal or not, of the players they suit up alongside. They’re there to make a living, feed their families, and hopefully win a few games in the process. If you can help them to do that, they will allow themselves to be led. And last year with the Bucs, that is exactly what was happening. I mean, look at this guy’s pro day workout and tell me he doesn’t have massive natural charisma.
It’s a charisma which can often cross over into arrogance, which pisses off the same group of football take-givers that love Luck so much. But their feelings aside, does anyone really believe arrogance is a bad thing when it comes to elite athletes?
Another misconception about Winston is that he’s stupid. I would argue any rookie QB that can pick up a playbook and its subtleties as quickly as Winston did last year can’t be stupid. He was also a straight-A student who got into Stanford. Some people call him stupid for exhibiting bad judgement at Florida State, but they’re confusing judgement with intelligence. And some of the folks calling him stupid are either racist, misinformed, or both.
This is a really smart dude. He was drawing up plays and leadership philosophies on notebooks before he was 12 years old. Probably around the same level of intelligence as Luck. They both got into the same school (obviously with the advantage of being highly sought recruits) and both picked up NCAA and NFL offenses quickly.
And, as I painstakingly pointed out above, I believe he has excellent football character, probably at a similar level as Luck. In fact, Winston is such an inspiring vocal leader that the edge may go to him. Overall, they possess similar intangibles.
Which leaves their on-field play. Luck certainly has a longer track record, but that’s just an outcome of being older. In fact, it may be more of a detriment than an attribute in this debate. Think about it: he has had four seasons to truly “take off” and hasn’t done it. If he had, we wouldn’t be having this argument. The best Winston could do would be to equal him and the point would be moot. Luck is also more mobile, but it would be hard to look at the elite QBs in modern NFL history and argue that being mobile is a prerequisite to joining them.
Both of these players flashed elite talent and upside in college, but I would argue that Winston went to a higher plane, especially against elite competition. Although to be fair, the players surrounding him were also of higher quality.
Their rookie seasons are comparable, but again, Winston gets the edge. In fact, Winston was better than Luck last year, straight up. He completed 58.3% of his passes for 4,042 yards and had 22 TDs and 15 INTs. His rating was 84.2 and he had three fumbles. He also left a lot of plays out on the field that were this close to being completed. The exact kind of plays you begin making in year two. Luck completed 54.1% of his passes as a rookie, throwing for 23 TDs and 18 INTs, and coughing up 9 fumbles. His rating was 76.5.
So Winston was better in college and as a rookie, and when he was tested in a tight moment in the national championship game during his first year as a starter at FSU, he came up huge, throwing the game-winning TD with just seconds left.
He also seems to have better instincts when it comes to split-second decisions on where to throw the ball in important spots. At a minimum, I haven’t seen the troubling interception tendencies from him that seem to plague Luck. I hope by now that I’ve demonstrated that that kind of decision-making has nothing to do with the kind that determines what you do on a Saturday night.
You have two extremely talented quarterbacks, except one is an unapologetically arrogant black man with a possible violent criminal past, and the other is a Stanford-educated white man who is almost comically humble and self-effacing. There is zero chance that the perception of their respective futures was ever going to be solely dictated by their on-field production and potential. Public perceptions are for the most part created by people in the media, and those people have biases, for better or worse. But those biases have very little to do with which of these players will have the better career, and for me, it’s Jameis Winston.