Taking the reins from future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, Jameis Winston has the type of second chance that quarterbacks rarely get in the NFL. Still in his physical prime at the age of 27, Winston now leads a team loaded with offensive and coaching talent — the very same setup that rejuvenated Brees’ career more than a decade ago.
Although no one is expecting Brees-like numbers from Winston just yet, the former No. 1 overall pick recognizes the huge opportunity that came with Brees’ retirement. After learning the offense for more than a year and growing close with Brees along the way, Winston is stepping up to the proverbial fork in the road of his NFL career.
Jameis Winston’s up-and-down Tampa career
The question of when to start a highly drafted quarterback is always a contentious one. When the Buccaneers landed Winston first overall in 2015, the struggling franchise hoped his time at ACC powerhouse Florida State was enough to get his feet wet. Tampa only went 6-10 as Winston started every game that year. The QB played well enough as a rookie to land in the Pro Bowl.
Despite flashes of brilliance as he developed, Winston struggled to rise to the challenge of a pass-heavy offense on a team filled with limitations. As an NFL starter, he didn’t have the luxury of learning the NFL position from the bench. By Winston’s fifth season in Tampa, he led the league in passing yards with 5,109 as well as interceptions and attempts.
No one debates Winston’s physical skill set. But a lack of efficiency made it an easy decision for the Bucs to move on once they had a shot at landing Tom Brady. Winston ended up on the bench in New Orleans in 2020. In the meantime, his former team caught fire and rode late-season momentum all the way to the Super Bowl.
In some critical ways, Winston’s trajectory is similar to Brees‘ after mixed success in San Diego with the Chargers. Brees was steady in his four years as a starter there. But the franchise quickly grew impatient and turned the franchise over to Philip Rivers.
Coincidentally, Brees also first started for the Saints at the age of 27, the same exact age Winston was when he won the starting job in New Orleans this past summer.
A mentorship for Drew Brees and a blessing in disguise for Winston
Despite the humbling experience for a player expected to be a superstar from day one, the chance to backup a fading Brees was a terrific opportunity for Winston to regroup. He also brought the right attitude to New Orleans, sharing his unique connection with both the Saints and Brees soon after signing with the team.
Winston told ABC News that he was the very first kid to get an autograph from Brees when Brees came to New Orleans in 2006. The chance encounter now seems almost too good to be true. At the time, Winston was 12 years old.
Looking up to Brees for a long time has helped Winston settle into the business side of the NFL as he starts his second act. As Sports Illustrated reports, Winston speaks like a man who recognizes how much he still has to learn. He called head coach Sean Payton a “genius” and talked openly about how Brees helped him have faith in the process.
For Winston, this means finding a much better balance between being aggressive and conservative. This is one of the key areas he has worked on with Brees.
The retired QB wants Winston to still look for opportunities to be aggressive down the field. But the 13-time Pro Bowler also pointed out that managing the game can be even more valuable to the team than taking it over. It’s a mental shift change for Winston, a rocket-armed gunslinger who has lit up opposing defenses since high school.
Winston’s big challenges still to come
After three games as the Saints starter, the lessons seem to have sunk in for Winston as he adjusts to a new role. He’s led the Saints to a 2-1 record to start the 2021 season. According to Pro Football Reference, Winston has averaged only 21 passes a game compared to an eye-popping 39 during his final season in Tampa.
Though he didn’t top 200 yards in the first three games of 2021, a 7-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio aligns with what the Saints hoped. Most importantly, New Orleans is off to a good start in the Winston era. The team hopes to get star wideout Michael Thomas back after the bye week, according to CBS Sports.
Even with the eventual return of Thomas, Winston’s season will get much harder later in the fall. While burying the Packers — widely considered a title contender — and dominating the Patriots on the road, the Saints didn’t have to rely much on Winston’s right arm. This will likely change due to a gauntlet of difficult matchups in the middle of the season.
By week six, the Saints head to Seattle for a difficult Monday Night Football matchup with the Seahawks. Then, they return home to play the Bucs in a critical game for both Winston and the team.
Facing his former squad will test everything Winston has learned under Brees’ wing. If he can master his demons against Tampa Bay, Winston could find himself back on track to stardom. For now, it’s one snap at a time — a critical lesson Winston learned from one of the best QBs in NFL history.