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This preseason performance does count, sort of

Bucs rookie quarterback Jameis Winston helps give Monday’s game some rare preseason importance.
Bucs rookie quarterback Jameis Winston helps give Monday’s game some rare preseason importance.
Published Aug. 25, 2015

TAMPA — The NFL preseason is a complete waste of time.

The games don't count, so the results are meaningless. Teams rarely break out all of their tricks, so the performances are worthless. For the most part, the guys playing a bulk of the games won't be playing on 100-yard professional football fields much longer.

In fact, not only are the games inconsequential, they can be hazardous. Ask the Packers, who lost top receiver Jordy Nelson for the year after he tore his knee in a preseason game. Ask the Steelers, who lost center Maurkice Pouncey in the same game with an ankle injury. Ask all the teams who have seen seasons shattered with major injuries to significant players in insignificant games.

For most teams and most players, these games mean nothing and we shouldn't care in the least.

So why do we care so much about how the Bucs are doing this preseason?

Because they are not most teams, and quarterback Jameis Winston is not most players.

While the rest of the NFL looks at the preseason as a necessary evil, the Bucs look at it as simply necessary. This might be the one time the preseason actually means something, the one time it is not a complete waste of time. This might be the one team whose preseason games matter.

The Bucs can use all the practice games they can get.

To wash out the taste of 2014. To get ready for 2015. And, most important, to give their franchise quarterback a crash course in the National Football League.

Say all you want about how the other team doesn't care or how football in August looks nothing like the football that will be played in October. A team like the Bucs will have no chance in the fall unless it shows some good signs in the summer.

That's what Monday night was about. Maybe the game didn't count, but it certainly meant something. In fact, for the Bucs, too bad the game did not count. And that means a lot.

"Winning helps no matter when," coach Lovie Smith said. "Anytime you're keeping score, you want to come out on top. It was good to see us take another step. We have a long ways to go … but it's a lot easier to build on something (after a win)."

Other than the heart-in-their-throat moment when Winston limped around on a bum ankle after a sack, the night went about as well as they could have hoped.

Doug Martin ran like it was 2012. The first-team defense played like it was 2002 with quarterback pressure, sacks, a fumble recovery and two interceptions, including a pick-six.

And, most pleasing of all for Tampa Bay, Winston looked a lot closer to being ready for the real thing. After a mixed-bag performance in his preseason debut at Minnesota last week, Winston was 8-of-13 for 90 yards and ran for a score in about 20 minutes.

Those numbers could have been even better had tight end Tim Wright held on to a perfect pass and had Winston had an extra breath of protection on a couple of other passes.

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Winston's most impressive numbers were zeros, as in zero interceptions, zero fumbles, zero bad decisions. Aside from tripping over his own feet and ending up with what looked like a twisted ankle on his final drive, Winston's night went splendidly.

"I don't even remember that play," Winston said about hurting his ankle. "What I remember is us going out there and playing a great football game."

He played with poise and confidence. He threw lasers into traffic and smartly went to checkdowns when no one was open downfield. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter helped him out with some smartly called screens and well-designed play-action passes. And it never hurts to have Martin running wild. He ran for 59 yards on six carries while Winston was in the game.

This is exactly the type of game the Bucs needed. For the past few years, they have had sand kicked in their face, their teeth kicked in and their throats stepped on. As much as getting ready for the season, this preseason is about building some confidence, about finding a way to crawl out from the nightmare that has been the past decade.

One preseason game against a mildly interested Bengals team doesn't solve everything, but you can't run in the regular season unless you learn to walk in the preseason. The Bucs needed a game like Monday's to prove it is capable of doing decent things even in games that don't matter. Hey, look at it this way: would you rather they look lousy and lose?

That's not to say the night was perfect.

The offensive line struggled for the second straight game, and it's clear that it will take some time before it molds into a reliable unit. Until it does, the Bucs offense and Winston's health will be in jeopardy. The team committed far too many penalties and has loads to clean up before the regular season.

And that's what the next preseason game Saturday will be about. It will be about fixing all that it has done wrong and building on all that it has done right.

But Monday was a good step, a positive sign, an optimistic performance.

Even if the game didn't really count.