MINNEAPOLIS — For a quarter and a half, the best thing you could have said about Jameis Winston's debut with the Bucs is that it didn't count.
Good thing. The kid was lousy.
Seven drives. Nine passes. Just two completions. An interception that led to a Vikings score. A couple of botched snaps. A mere four first downs.
Not exactly the start Bucs fans wanted to see from the young man charged with saving the franchise.
Time to panic? Time to say the Bucs made a huge mistake? Time to bench the guy before he even gets a real NFL start?
Let's not get ridiculous. It was a preseason game. It was Winston's first preseason game. But you better believe that much of Bucs Nation — even those who knew full well that this first preseason game was barely a notch above a practice — was ready declare Winston a bust.
Then, boom, it happened.
A quick out to Luke Stocker. A screen to Bobby Rainey. A quick-hitter to Mike Evans. A laser to Louis Murphy. Another pass to Murphy. A smart scramble, and a gutsy dive into the end zone.
Just like that, Winston calmed the doomsday fears with a scoring drive that looked as if it were engineered by an honest-to-goodness, talented, poised NFL quarterback. "I had butterflies," Winston said, "because I wanted to do the right things."
It took him a while to do the right things, but when Winston got it going, he showed that maybe he can play this game after all.
His final passing stats — 9-of-19 for 131 yards, no touchdowns and one interception — were somewhat respectable, though slightly misleading. He was more bad than good, and his 48.4 quarterback rating won't win you many games in the NFL.
But give the kid a break. It was his first game, and it could have been a lot worse. Winston went from bad to better. He looked crummy at times, good at others. Overall, it was a mixed bag.
And honestly, what else should we have expected? Rookie quarterbacks are supposed to look lost. They're supposed to look out of sorts. That's exactly how Winston looked for much of Saturday night's preseason opener against the Vikings.
But wait, aren't first overall draft picks supposed to look sharp, too? Well, that's also how Winston looked for some of the game. "That's the type of player he is," coach Lovie Smith said. "You have to have a first game. You have to work through some of those things, and that's what he's doing."
If you are inclined to give Winston the benefit of the doubt, there are plenty of valid excuses for his poor play.
The offensive line is a work in progress and showed there is plenty of work to be done. Winston was under constant pressure. It also didn't help that he was stifled by poor field position for most of his one half of play. The result was a mediocre night.
And that's what you're going to get for a while from Winston, and when I say a while, I mean for maybe a year or two.
There are going to be games when Winston thrills you with his enormous talent and daredevil ways. He will produce exciting drives. He will win games.
But be forewarned. He will try to fit square pegs into round holes, or in NFL terms, big footballs into tiny openings. He will throw interceptions. He will lose games.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Such is what you get when you have a gunslinger, a term Winston fully embraces for himself.
"It's a good thing," Winston told me last week. "I like throwing the football and making big plays. I'm very aggressive."
Sure, it's a good thing. When it works. When you are throwing for first downs. And touchdowns. And victories. It's not a good thing when you are throwing interceptions.
"That's why the early years, it's about decision making," Winston said. "One thing (Florida State) coach (Jimbo) Fisher always says: Make the right decisions, and know why you made the decision. If I know my whys and I make a mistake, I know I won't make that same mistake again."
The rap on him at FSU was that he made too many of the same mistakes. He threw 65 touchdown passses over two seasons while leading the Seminoles to a 26-1 record and a national championship. But he also threw 28 interceptions, including 18 in 2014.
"When people talk about interceptions, it's a lot of things that come with interceptions," Winston said. "Anything can cause an interception."
That's true. It's not always the quarterback's fault. Maybe a wide receiver ran a wrong route. Maybe there was pressure because of poor protection. Not that anyone cares about that stuff, right?
"At the end of the day, the stat sheet is going to say the quarterback has the interception," Winston said. "My objective is not to focus on interceptions at all. My objective is to play football the best I possibly can and move the ball up and down the field."
He did that a little Saturday. Maybe not as much as everyone had hoped, but enough to have you excited for the next game.
Another one that, thank heavens, doesn't count just yet.