TAMPA — When Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston first walked onto the campus at One Buc Place last year, he threw a football in much the same way he once threw a baseball as a pitcher at Florida State.
He dropped his throwing hand down to his hip, stepped into his throws with a long, loping stride and took what seemed like forever to get to his release point and deliver the ball.
For Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian, refining that raw throwing motion has been a bit like trying to capture a ball of mercury under his thumb. It’s been nothing short of challenging.
Clearly, though, Bajakian has made some headway, because the Winston that has led the Bucs’ recent resurgence in the standings seldom looks like the Winston that arrived in Tampa as a raw rookie last year.
Though he hasn’t eliminated it completely, Winston has mostly corrected the tendency to over-stride that far too often resulted in the ball soaring like a kite over his receiver’s heads.
He has also steadied his feet and is holding the ball higher all through his drop back and set up, the results of which have him releasing the ball far more quickly and with far greater accuracy.
For example, after completing just 58.4 percent of his passes through the first 23 games of his career, Winston has completed 66.4 percent of his throws the last four games.
That run includes a 21-for-28 effort a week ago against Seattle, in which one Winton throw in particular exemplified the strides he’s made in refining his mechanics.
On a first-and-10 play from the Seattle 23-yard line late in the first quarter, Winston dropped a ball in the bucket to wide receiver Mike Evans for a 23-yard touchdown pass.
With Evans locked in a man-to-man battle down the left sideline against cornerback Richard Sherman, Winston had to be precise with his throw to get the ball to Evans. It was his mechanics that made it so.
His drop back was sure and steady, his footwork was precise and his release was quick, the ball arcing perfectly nose down into Evans’ waiting hands as he crossed over the goal line into the end zone.
A week earlier, on a second-and-16 play from the Kansas City 35, Winston made the same pass and got virtually the same result, with Evans gaining 31 yards just four yards shy of a score.
“It’s a testament to his work ethic and his attention to detail,’’ Bajakian said of Winston’s progress after just two years. “I mean, he really works at it.’’
The work begins before practice, Winston usually devoting 10 or 15 minutes of extra time to the drills that are designed to shorten his stride, speed up his release and increase his accuracy.
It continues during practice, in particular during the portions devoted to special teams in which Winston moves to a separate field to do more of the same drill work he did before the workout.
And it often extends well into the post-practice period of the day, Winston staying on the field sometimes for almost an hour in an effort to refine his throwing motion and footwork.
That was the objective to Wednesday’s overtime session, Winston standing flat-footed, his feet separated just slightly and throwing ball after ball to tight end Cameron Brate.
The goal, Bajakian said, is to develop a solid base while maintaining the balance that allows Winston to rotate his hips properly and deliver the ball with power without over-striding.
“There’s just so much that goes into it,’’ Bajakian said of the proper throwing motion. “It starts with his drop technique and then you have to make sure your feet are in position at the top of the drop so that you don’t over-stride.
“From there you have to make sure you have the proper power stride, with your knees bent, your butt down and your chest up. All those things go into it and he’s done a great job with all of it.’’
It’s not just the work Bajakian and Winston have done that’s allowed the quarterback to refine his mechanics and throw with more accuracy. The work the offensive line has done has played a role in the improved play, too.
Winston was sacked 38 times last year and 16 times through the first seven games this year. Since then he has played inside a relatively clean pocket, and that has aided his progress.
“I think a quarterback’s comfort level is… based (largely) on his comfort level in the pocket,’’ offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “If you get hit a lot, you’re not going to want to stand in there.
“Your feet are going to be active and you’re going to be looking to run around. But Jameis has done a great job of being patient with his feet. He just seems calmer in the pocket. And part of that is protection.’’
Another part of it is confidence in the system. Head coach Dirk Koetter’s scheme is made up mostly of slower-developing downfield routes that work well with Winston’s slower release time.
As Winston’s mechanics improve, though, the Bucs will have the option of adding more slants and timing routes to their passing attack, which should make it even more potent.
For now, though, the Bucs are likely to stick with what’s working best and that’s those downfield routes and a variety of screens. After all, it’s not just Winston’s accuracy that’s improved.
In the last four games Winston has taken his play to an entirely new level, throwing just two interceptions while racking up 1,124 passing yards, eight touchdowns and a 106.4 passer rating.
“That’s me just sticking to my goal, which is simple,’’ Winston said. “I just want to get better every day and coach Bajakian and coach Koetter do a great job with the drills they have us do each day.
“The amount of reps that I get to work on my technique, it’s really worked and coach Bajakian definitely stays on me all the time about rhythm and accuracy, rhythm and precision, and it’s working.’’