How Jameis Winston can resurrect his career arc

Bucs vs. Falcons — When Jameis Winston makes his first start of the season in Atlanta Sunday, it's time for him to let go of his 'I-can-do-anything' approach.
Jameis Winston (3) makes his first start of the season Sunday in Atlanta. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Jameis Winston (3) makes his first start of the season Sunday in Atlanta. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Oct. 8, 2018|Updated Oct. 8, 2018

TAMPA — It was during the Monday night game against Pittsburgh. Late in the contest, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spun and eluded the Bucs pass rush. He then threw a completion downfield for a first down that effectively sealed The Bucs' first loss of what is now 2-2 season. Roethlisberger's escape artistry was breathtaking. I thought at the time: There are only maybe four or five NFL quarterbacks who can make that kind of play.

Jameis Winston is one of them.

Remember that.

And now the job is his again. Yes, it's Jameis is Back week, really back. Ryan Fitzpatrick was a dream sequence. His jersey hangs in Canton in the three-consecutive-400-yard-games wing. Jameis Winston is the Bucs starting quarterback, no Fitz in the wings, nor should there be. The Bucs need to know if Winston is the future or if there isn't one.

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Winston returns Sunday at Atlanta against an angry 1-4 Falcons team already playing for its playoff life. And he's on his own. The Bucs have retained defensive coordinator Mike Smith and his lousy defense. The Bucs have no running game (another winning offseason). The Bucs need to outscore people to have any chance to win.

Get in there, Jameis!

There wasn't going to be a best-case scenario for Winston's return, but this one is especially troubling. The Bucs just lost in Chicago and it felt like six losses. It points to Winston's head on fire, thinking he needs to come back and throw 400 yards on every play in the name of the season, his comeback, a future contract, public sentiment, everything. He'll think he needs to play and lead out of his finger-licking mind. And that's usually when his mind explodes.

No matter if you think Winston shouldn't be on the Bucs – or never should have been drafted No. 1 – this is about here and now. This is about Winston breathing deeply and keeping it all together to resurrect his career arc.

Note: The man can make all of the throws Fitzpatrick can make. In his sleep. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter and offensive coordinator Todd Monken's offense schemed to spring DeSean Jackson open for a few big shots, and Fitzpatrick hit him. So can Winston. Someone should tell Jackson that. Someone should tell Winston that.

What the Bucs are looking for is for that light to go off inside Winston. I mean, it's his fourth season. You're looking for the maturity switch to flip, to take Winston away from thinking he absolutely must carry this team and never give up on a single play to this is the NFL, I'm going to have to know when to take my shots, when to take my lumps or throw it out of bounds. Don't remember Peyton Manning under a pile of three guys much. He knew what plays were capable of.

Winston came in with "I can do anything," because that's what he did at Florida State (on and off the field). He needs to understand it's not all on him. He is perfectly capable of putting up 30 points per game with these receivers. If the Bucs lose 45-31 this Sunday, entirely possible, don't put it all on Jameis, unless he throws four picks or something.

If Koetter and Monken design it right, Winston can hit those short intermediate passes. He can avoid those third and longs that add to the pressure he puts on himself and puts everyone around him on edge, too.

You have him throw 25 to 30 passes, not 40 to 50. This is where not being down 21-0 comes in handy. Winston can hit those sideline routes, zipping 20-yarders that Fitz didn't have the arm for, out patterns that Mike Evans routinely goes up and takes away from defenders.

And you run the ball. There. I said it. You keep the Falcons offense, and, more important, the Bucs defense, off the field. Koetter and Monken became so enamored with Fitz slinging it around that they forgot balance. Any quarterback's head is on fire without a run game.

Can Jameis channel his inner Fitz? We're about to find out. It's about the wisdom he should have gained by now, especially after sitting, seeing how Fitz got it done. Frankly, we saw things begin to slow down for Winston late last season. He was a little less frenetic.

Everyone wants to put it all on Winston's shoulders. But it's on Koetter and Monken to make a reasonable plan, then to have Jameis execute. Give him a reasonable working plan and he'll give you 30 points. If you're going in saying 30 isn't enough, your DC shouldn't be there.

Calm and cool it, Jameis. Let the game come to you. Keep it together. If only this season lent itself to that. Instead, it's how many points can Jameis put up to outscore the other team? It's a recipe for disaster. But No. 3 is back. Onward. Just keep the fire extinguisher handy for when his head is on fire.

Contact Martin Fennelly at or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly