TAMPA — It was the biggest stage he had ever played on as a professional and, yes, it was a little too big for him at times.
Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys, in front of 93,000 fans and millions of TV eyes, Jameis Winston blinked a few times.
The team around him blinked more.
But Winston was drafted by the Bucs, No. 1 overall, for just this kind of game. And he didn't quite deliver.
Fine. Sound the alarm bells. It's over. Panic away, everybody.
I'll still bet the future on a grownup Jameis.
He's just not there yet.
Some perspective is needed.
That's hard, because Winston completed just 17 of 35 passes and turned it over four times while his rookie counterpart, Dak Prescott, was a pinpoint 32-for-36. In the fourth quarter, Winston was 3-of-12 for 19 yards and two interceptions for a Bluto Blutarsky QB rating of 0.0. I am pretty sure that is bad.
It's also a gross oversimplification, lining up one quarterback against another.
One works at a fortress. One works at a fire drill.
Understand: Winston could have been a lot better.
There was his fumble as he was trying to throw early in the second quarter. It led to seven Dallas points and a 10-3 Cowboys lead.
But his elbow was hit as he began his throwing motion. It wasn't a careless play. Replay showed it.
There was Winston's ridiculous head-butt personal foul on Dallas linebacker Justin Durant — pure immaturity — that helped take the Bucs from first and goal at the Dallas 8-yard line to eventually settling for a field goal. It might have cost the Bucs four points. No excuse for that.
And no excuse for Winston missing receiver Russell Shepard on a key third down after the Bucs appeared poised to retake the lead after Jason Witten fumbled for the first time in 12,000 years, courtesy of Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander.
That was big.
But I'm not going to say that Winston or his team's confidence or season is in tatters.
Or that coming up short against the best team in the conference and the best offensive line in football is an abomination.
Or that missing the playoffs this season would destroy Winston and this team.
Sunday night was an important experience for the Bucs. Bright lights, big game.
But the Cowboys were better.
Can you really argue otherwise?
That hulking Cowboys offensive line, that was the reality check.
If the Bucs had been down 17-3 last season in a game like this, they would never have come back to take the lead. They displayed some tenacity, even on defense. Winston made a few plays. When he makes plays, the Bucs score. Funny how that works.
He just didn't make enough of them Sunday, especially down the stretch.
What, he wins five in a row but now he's awful? His career is on the brink? He's not a leader?
Overreaction Monday at its worst.
I'm not trying to make excuses for Winston, but Prescott is driving a locomotive. Jameis has more cabooses than engine.
Prescott has Ezekiel Elliott, the presumptive offensive rookie of the year, and a future Hall of Fame tight end, and Dez Bryant. Prescott is planted behind an offensive line filled with All-Pros. Sunday night, he went through his progressions.
Imagine Jameis in that kind of world. But he can't come close to functioning like Prescott. He has no time. He has no running game. He has an offensive line that was overwhelmed late Sunday. If they had pumped Cowboys defensive end David "Too Tall" Irving's stomach after the game, they would have found a family-sized portion of Gosder Cherilus.
Does No. 3 get too excited sometimes, too amped? Yes. It costs him on occasion. It affects his accuracy.
Did he miss Mike Evans on that crucial deep ball late in Sunday's game? Yes. Aaron Rodgers makes that throw.
Jameis isn't Aaron Rodgers.
The Dallas game won't scar Winston.
Neither will missing the playoffs if the Bucs come up short.
This won't define his future.
It's still out there, for the taking.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.