Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston aims to put his past behind him and lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back to the playoffs.
From the Seminoles’ national title in 2014 to Florida State’s place in the NCAA’s first ever playoff last season, Winston was behind center, leading his team from one dramatic come-from-behind victory to another, one of which put the Fighting Irish in a tailspin that thoroughly derailed their season.
After Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston became only the second freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in 2014. Based on his torrid start to Bucs’ training camp, Winston aims to make sure his comparison to Manziel, a relative bust with Cleveland, ends there.
Aside from the Panthers’ ability to accomplish the feat in 2013 and 2014, no NFC South team has repeated as division winner. Despite Carolina’s relative stranglehold on the division (four titles in the division, the most since the division’s inception in 2002), the Saints and the Buccaneers are the only teams to win Super Bowls, with Tampa Bay winning the division’s first NFL title. Even so, the Bucs have not made the postseason since 2007, when the Giants went on an improbable run to beat New England in Super Bowl XLII, back when quarterback Jeff Garcia lead the club. Given how he looks thus far in training camp, Winston does not appear comfortable serving as a mere stopgap in the mold of Garcia and Mike Glennon, number two on Tampa Bay’s depth chart.
This year, the Bucs wish to return to form, with the team going back to its roots–orange creamsicle jersey lookout alert!–and their number one draft pick Jameis Winston leading the way.
Contrarily, Marcus Mariota, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, was a media darling, delivering an articulate speech in receiving the NCAA’s highest honor. He was a gentleman at the podium, beaming with confidence and urbanity. Fresh off his Heisman win, many regarded the Oregon quarterback as the overall number one pick in the NFL draft. Never mind that he was a system quarterback who could not play the position the way Winston could.
Behind Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, Winston played in a pro-style offense, further playing the part of a confident leader who continually beamed with positivity, evidenced clearly in his postgame interview after beating Auburn in 2014 in an absolute thriller of a BCS title game, with Winston leading a game-winning touchdown drive in the game’s closing moments.
Many saw in this interview what Mariota was not: bumbling, jumpy, tactless, and without eloquence. Many burned Winston here for seeming uneducated, but upon closer examination, any objective viewer will not mistake Winston’s joy for playing football, and his desire to be a leader of men.
Despite his playoff pedigree in Chicago, not many are confident in head coach Lovie Smith’s ability to be the skipper to lead the Bucs back to the playoffs. That said, Smith has not had a quarterback of Winston’s potential and caliber (yes, that includes the Jay Cutler years).
Lost in the shuffle of the magnificent seasons Odell Beckham, Jr., Kelvin Benjamin, Sammy Watkins, and Jordan Matthews had with their teams was Mike Evans, Winston’s number one wide receiver going into 2015. Evans’ 2014 numbers were astronomical, even despite Mike Glennon’s being his primary signal caller: 1,051 yards and 12 TDs, a scoring output only bettered by Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, and Antonio Brown, wideouts with far better quarterbacks to lead them.
Jameis Winston is a big boy: think Ben Roethlisberger, but more mobile and agile. He enters his rookie season with a chip on his shoulder, wishing to put past off-field incidents well behind him. Many cite his staying in Florida as troubling, but lest we forget that teams looking for quarterbacks (the Jets come to mind) would be thrilled to have Winston at the helm. Imagine the buzz coming from Florham Park if Winston, not Geno Smith (eek!) or Ryan Fitzpatrick (ugh!), were throwing balls to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker behind what aims to be the league’s best defense. Alas, the Jets are not so fortunate, but many in Tampa Bay will see firsthand what made Winston worthy of a number one pick in the first place.
Evans, Vincent Jackson, despite a decline, and second year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, should improve now that Winston, not Glennon or Josh McCown, is their quarterback. Logan Mankins and two rookies, left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet, lead a young, hungry offensive line that will work to protect Winston and allow him to construct a successful rookie campaign, one that hopefully ends with a playoff run.
Despite minor reservations, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell notes the Bucs “as a team on the rise,” an organization that plans to take advantage of crumbling division rivals around them: the Saints, who find themselves in the midst of salary cap hell, Carolina, who is one Cam Newton injury away from bottoming out (Cam, even when mobile, cannot hide forever behind a leaky line), and Atlanta, who, despite the Matt Ryan and Julio Jones tandem, has yet to put it together, since both stars cannot man the secondary.
Does Jameis Winston need to be brilliant this season? No. Is he a top-ten quarterback in the NFL? That remains to be seen. What we know of Mr. Winston is that he is a remarkable talent who will work diligently to avoid comparisons to JaMarcus Russell, a number one pick and bust with the Oakland Raiders in 2007.
Winston could stand to avoid the pitfalls and off-field issues that are looking to torpedo Sheldon Richardson’s second season in New York. While many can laugh now at the notorious “crab legs incident,” other issues that loom larger–including his alleged rape charge from 2012–could serve to derail him, playoff run or not.
Ultimately, let us see what Winston can manage in 2015 to put his checkered past behind him.
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