Let's hope the electorate will be paying attention tonight when the great debate resumes in St. Louis. No, not that one. For drama, you can't trump the race for the NFL's offensive rookie of the year.
The Bucs (6-7) and Rams (5-8) haven't combined for enough wins to lead their respective divisions, but that might not be the case for long thanks to two sensational first-year stars — Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston and St. Louis running back Todd Gurley.
The matchup might not be as polarizing or as provocative as Winston vs. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in the season opener. Their lives diverged but remain intertwined. But prime time games this late in the regular season leave a lasting impression, so a good performance in this game for Winston or Gurley could lead to a color rush to judgment for one candidate.
"I talked about Todd Gurley earlier (this week). We did a lot of work on him; he was a special player in college coached by a great coach in Mark Richt," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "And he's played that way. He's come on to the scene quickly and just watching him run, he can do it all. He's a big back, he can run inside the tackles with power, make you miss in the open field, great speed, and, of course, I could talk the rest of the night about our guy, Jameis Winston. If you haven't seen him play, and we haven't been on the national stage, that in itself is enough to watch the game."
Winston and Gurley were teammates at the USA International Bowl all-star game as high school seniors and have remained friends while following each other's career at a distance.
"I text Gurley throughout the week. I always tell him good job, and he does the same," Winston said. "We just try to keep up with our rookie class. … That's my guy. I'm very happy for him."
Gurley, the former Georgia Bulldog who was projected as an NFL star by the time he started shaving, feels the same about Winston.
"He's had a great year. He's definitely my boy, so it's always good seeing him do well," Gurley said. "We stay in contact and check up on each other, so it'll definitely be fun playing against him this Thursday — my first time playing against him."
While Mariota burst onto the scene with his four-touchdown performance in his debut against the Bucs, Gurley and Winston have been divvying up the buzz lately.
Gurley has overcome more than either quarterback. He tore his ACL while playing at Georgia in November 2014 but recovered quickly enough to play for the Rams by Week 3, when he carried six times for 9 yards.
Then Gurley went on a tear, becoming the first rookie to rush for 125 yards or more in four consecutive games. With 975 yards and eight touchdowns, Gurley is fourth in the league in rushing and is poised to become the first Rams rookie to reach 1,000 yards rushing since Jerome Bettis in 1993. Gurley is coming off a 140-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance in a win over Detroit last week.
"It was a tough process, but the way I looked at it, I'm not the first person to tear his ACL, and I'm not going to be the last," Gurley said. "Just have to go through the rehab and get back to playing. So I didn't really look at it like a big deal like that."
Despite the injury, Rams coach Jeff Fisher felt strongly enough about Gurley to make him the 10th overall pick.
"We drafted him to be the running back of our future," Fisher said. "We took him, we were patient with him, we waited until Week 3, got him a few carries and then he really came on in Week 4, at Arizona. We're trying to get the ball to him as often as we can, being mindful of we don't want to wear him out. He's in great shape right now. I can't wait until he has a full offseason. … He's just special; he's got special skills. And he's a better person than he is a player."
Each pass seems to push Winston's long line of off-field problems at Florida State further out of the minds of fans. If you're looking for a deciding factor, consider this: Winston affects every aspect of the offense at quarterback while Gurley needs only to know a handful of running plays, option routes and protections.
Winston already has set club rookie records for passing yards (3,059), his 18 touchdown passes is one short of Mike Glennon's rookie record and the five rushing touchdowns are second among quarterbacks to Cam Newton. Winston's 85.4 passer rating would stand as the seventh-highest by a rookie since the merger, and he ranks fourth in yards per completion (7.48).
"Just very impressed with him," Fisher said. "There's no doubt in our mind that he was one of the top 2 last year. You couldn't go wrong with either one of them. Just to watch him over time and watch the games and watch him kind of develop — they're expanding the offense with him now. His feet are good, the ball is always in the right position, release is good, accuracy — it's hard to complete every pass; you can't do that, but his accuracy is good, and he's mobile. And that presents problems for you. Anytime you can extend plays with your legs, which he's done numerous times, it becomes a problem for you defensively."
Mariota and Raiders receiver Amari Cooper also likely will be on the podium for the offensive rookie of the year award. But Winston and Gurley will share the biggest stage tonight.
"We know what type of players we are," Gurley said. "We're competitive. We don't think about all of the awards, but at the end of the day that's what comes with it. But … it's all about winning and trying to make a playoff run for both teams. That's just what we're thinking — we're not really worrying about the accolades."