Get your popcorn ready and jet to the wide screen TV because it’s officially Jameis Winston time in Tampa Bay.
A franchise that has been searching for a golden-armed, pigskin-slinger since its inception in 1976 (Doug Williams was pretty damn good but Tampa didn't value him and let him get away too soon) hopes that the NFL's No. 1 overall draft pick’s first preseason series in front of his home crowd on Monday Night Football, is an early indication of how impactful he will be.
Winston drove Tampa straight down the field on his first possession, capping the impressive drive with a 1-yard TD lunge.
After a shaky start in his first preseason appearance, Winston played like a future All-Pro against Marvin Lewis' talented Bengals squad, before leaving the game with a nicked up ankle in the second quarter. He was accurate and efficient, completing 8 of 13 passes for 90 yards.
He and running back Doug Martin seem to have a special chemistry. Martin hasn’t been the same since rushing for a whopping 1,454 yards at 4.6 yards per tote in his 2012 rookie season. He only played 17 games the next two seasons and wasn’t nearly as productive, amassing just 950 yards on about a yard less per carry.
Winston’s arrival has lit a fire in Martin’s game and he was looking rugged and retro on that first drive, which included a spectacular 30-yard run, where he broke three tackles, dipping under and around the grasps of Bengals defenders.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense also contributed, forcing three first-half turnovers in the 25-11 Bucs victory at Raymond James Stadium.
The NFL jump has ended miserably for many highly–touted players. Winston is handling his transition seamlessly so far. His team isn’t very good yet and his offensive line is super suspect so don’t expect miracles in the win column.
Winston will be doing a lot of turf eating in his early stages with a Bucs team that an had NFL-high 68 offensive penalties last season. What did Tampa Bay do to help their young signal caller? They brought in two rookie starters in left tackle Donovan Smith and D-III stud right guard Ali Marpet. Not exactly first choices for a rookie in need of experienced protection. Both were penalized at some point on Monday night.
Despite the O-line’s inability to pick up blitzes and use their mitts properly, it was obvious to me that Winston exhibited the same leadership qualities that made him a legend in college. He was loud in communication, strategic in his audibles, confident and emphatic with his decisions. He looked totally comfortable even in moments of disarray.
That first drive was a glimpse into Tampa’s future with Jameis running the show. Lovie Smith’s young, undisciplined and vulnerable offensive line has to develop more. It was no more evident than in Winston’s next two series which saw several positive gains negated by a slew of penalties on the offensive line from holding to illegal hands to the face.
Winston was hustling backwards at that point and predictably his night ended when his offensive line totally broke down and he was mauled by several Bengals players and got his right ankle rolled on by a defender. Good thing Jameis is an iron man behind center. He will need to be.
Winston reminds me of a Steve “Air” McNair (RIP). He’s big. Clutch. Has a rifle and commands a respect from his team that overtime becomes reverence and deep loyalty. He even moves like McNair. They are deceptive in that they limp and hobble around like they are 45-years old, but when the huddle breaks and the action drops they have full mobility and a vibrant killer’s instinct.
In typical Winston fashion, when asked about his ankle by ESPN’s Lisa Salters, he didn’t want to talk about that after the game.
“It’s not about my ankle,” Winston said. “It’s about this great victory we got here in Tampa Bay tonight. We haven’t had a win here at home in a long time. I just have wonderful teammates and every day I come in and I’m happy to come to work because these guys are prepared and ready”
When Salters asked him what he would say to those who still question his maturity and character and ability to lead a pro franchise, Winston responded with the same dignity and humility that he has expressed for some time now.
Like the ankle injury, Winston is quickly leaving the past in the past and blazing a bright future.
“I go out there and play football. Actions speak louder than words,” said Winston. “I just thank God that I got this opportunity to become an NFL football player so I just come out here and do my best every day.”
Watching young men grow up is a beautiful thing, especially when they have rare talents and the unique opportunity to not only build a great career and impact American athletics at the highest levels, but leave the transgressions of youth behind by flexing improved social skills and touching people in the process.
Now we will get to see who the real Jameis Winston is. He’s no longer protected and coddled by the sanctity of Florida State’s forgiving football-obsessed atmosphere. The next time he gets in hot water, his punishment will be more severe than a disciplinary student code of conduct hearing.
As far as his on the field swag, last night proved that it’s just business as usual for the former Heisman winner. He lost one game in his entire NCAA career and he’s bringing that same mentality and optimism to a Bucs team in the works. And when your best player is genuinely your greatest team player, there’s nowhere to go but up.