TAMPA — Jameis Winsome?
Okay, let's not start the nickname contest just yet.
And he doesn't have to dress up like DeSean Jackson, or even throw the ball to him.
Yes, a funny thing has happened on Jameis Winston's way to oblivion. Something new and strange has emerged:
A professional football quarterback.
There he was again Sunday, helping beat the Carolina Panthers with his arm and his legs and his head and even his heart. There he was for the second consecutive week with a clean slate — no turnovers. There he was again, the kind of player an NFL team can win with, a quarterback who's hard to beat.
You can say the Bucs should not have drafted Winston No. 1 in 2015. You can say the Bucs should have cut ties with him over his last off-field problem, the one that earned him a three-game suspension to start this season.
But he is here, and he is now, and he has stepped off the roller coaster and his head isn't spinning and he has been the kind of player that speaks to the future more than Ryan Fitzpatrick's early carpet ride ever did.
The infernal thing is that Winston maybe could have played like this all along.
It's amazing what a disappearing sense of entitlement will do.
This late rally might not be enough to save jobs, including the one belonging to the Bucs head coach (fired Packers coach Mike McCarthy joined the candidates school Sunday). But ask me about Dirk Koetter again if the Bucs win three of their last four and Winston continues his upward curve. The Bucs are suddenly 5-7, on the desperate fringe of playoff contention as Drew Brees and the Saints come to town Sunday.
Aren't you at least curious to see what happens?
All I know is that the NFL is a quarterback league.
And that the NFC South is a quarterback division.
And that Winston, the 4 horse, is coming on.
He won his private battle with former league MVP Cam Newton on Sunday. Newton was humiliated by the Bucs' no-names. Winston went and won his second game in a row.
Maybe it's too little too late. Maybe the pressure was off, no playoffs, and Winston has nothing to lose. Maybe he watched Fitzpatrick command games and gather the team up. So, that's how you do it. Or maybe it was something as simple as Winston's career-expiration light going off, and with it the realization that someone can — and will — take his job and his treasure just like that.
It doesn't matter at this point. Winston is playing like a keeper. He's fun to watch, at least these last two games, with 561 yards passing and four touchdowns – and no interceptions. The Bucs can win when Winston plays like that. They have won when Winston has played like that.
We saw it against Carolina, when Winston rolled right, away from the pass rush, and threw a perfect strike to Chris Godwin in the back of the end zone, and Godwin was Winston's fourth option on the play. By the way, it helped Winston pass Josh Freeman to become the all-time TD thrower in Bucs history. 81 and it's a franchise record. If that doesn't say something about Bucs history, nothing does.
But we saw it when Winston took the sacks instead of trying to do something stupid. And we saw it when he broke off a run — he constituted the Bucs rushing attack Sunday — but made sure to have both hands on the ball like a fullback so he wouldn't fumble.
We are watching a man under control, finally.
No one is clamoring for Fitz anymore.
All this could change if New Orleans slams the Bucs on Sunday. One reverse turn from No. 3 and things might get crazy again. And this might be one QB throwdown too many for Winston. Drew Brees is Drew Brees.
The jury is still out on Winston.
But at least there is new evidence.
There is a Jameis Winston who isn't trying to win games on every play as if his future and reputation rides on his every moment on the field. No one can play with that load, whether he made the load or not. Winston made the load.
Winston is no innocent.
But he finally looks like a professional football quarterback.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or 813-731-8029