JACKSONVILLE — Your pulse barely registered the first two touchdown passes. For crying out loud, one was a glorified handoff disguised as a shovel pass. And, okay, maybe the next two touchdown passes were sweet enough to keep you from turning the channel in a blowout game.
But that fifth touchdown pass thrown by Jameis Winston in his debut as a savior of Saints on Sunday?
Well, let’s just say the NFL season got a lot more interesting in Tampa Bay.
And maybe a little more worrisome, too.
Winston was not quite brilliant in a season-opening 38-3 shocker against Green Bay, and that’s what so fascinating about his first start in the post-Drew Brees era in New Orleans. I mean, he only had 148 passing yards, which is the fewest he’s ever thrown in an NFL start that he actually won.
But what that suggests is Winston was everything that he rarely was in his five seasons as a Buccaneer. He was more methodical and less frenzied. He was patient. He managed the game plan instead of trying to overwhelm the defense.
Then, just when you thought he had turned into some boring Stepford version of a quarterback, Winston threw a pass that travelled 60 yards in the air and hit Deonte Harris in stride for a fifth touchdown.
Oh yeah, it’s game on in Tampa Bay.
“I don’t think there’s a player in the building I’m more proud of. There’s nobody I’m more excited to watch. The sky is the limit for (Winston),” said Saints linebacker Demario Davis. “To see his evolution as a player and as a man, I think the world is really going to be shocked by what they see.”
It’s not that Winston’s performance on Sunday made you wish he was still flinging the ball around Raymond James Stadium. When history’s greatest quarterback has won you a Super Bowl and is still doing age-defying tricks, you’ve got no reason to be jealous about your ex.
But the way Winston played in the season opener — which was moved to Jacksonville following Hurricane Ida — means the 2021 season and the NFC South title is no guarantee around Tampa Bay.
If Winston can manage coach Sean Payton’s ball-control offense while also giving the Saints a home run threat that has been missing in recent years, the road to a potential repeat Super Bowl for the Bucs could pass through New Orleans again.
“I thought he played very well, yes, played very well,” Payton said. “He was locked in. He was focused.”
Focused is an interesting compliment. For all of his good moments in Tampa Bay — and there were more than you might want to admit — Winston could ruin a game by losing focus and turning the ball over in a critical situation.
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He almost did that Sunday, too. The Saints were winning 24-3 in the third quarter when Winston threw into coverage in the end zone with a pass rusher in his face. The ball was deflected and intercepted, but Winston caught a break when the Packers were called for a dubious roughing-the-passer penalty. So Winston’s only interception of the day was wiped off the books.
Instead, the narrative was on the way he pulled the ball down and scrambled for first downs. The way he threw the ball away when his receivers were covered, and checked down when the situation called for it. In 70 starts with the Bucs, Winston had only one game with as many as five touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Under Bruce Arians, the Bucs have been among the NFL’s top teams in terms of pushing the ball downfield. Winston had the arm for that kind of offense, but maybe not the temperament. The Saints, on the other hand, move the ball in smaller chunks with safer passes nearer the line of scrimmage. And Winston looked right at home, although it helped that the Saints manhandled the Green Bay defensive line.
So was it Payton’s play calling? Was it Brees’ influence? Was it Winston’s new maturity? Chances are, they all had an influence.
“Drew always preached it’s about the decision, not the result,” Winston said. “Sometimes the decision is throwing the ball away, sometimes the decision is running and tucking, sometimes the decision is maybe taking a sack. The more we keep making the right decision, it will take care of itself.”
One of the maddening things about Winston’s stay in Tampa Bay is that he always seemed on the cusp of playing like this. He would have a good half or a good game or even a good month, but would ultimately break your heart.
And his teammates never seemed to resent him for it. He was always one of the most-liked players in the locker room because his enthusiasm was genuine, and you can see the same story emerging in New Orleans. After that fifth touchdown pass, and after getting a bear hug from Payton on the sideline, Winston went down the bench and shook hands with every offensive player.
When the game was over, he skipped toward the locker room in a sing-song manner as if the weight of expectations has finally been lifted.
Wearing a black suit with a white dress shirt and black tie after the game, Winston didn’t bite on a question about personal redemption. Instead, he talked about New Orleans residents who are still without power after the hurricane and have troubles far worse than his.
Maybe, at 27, Winston has grown up.
Oh yeah, this could be fun, Tampa Bay.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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