Jameis Winston got off to a stunningly dominant start in Week 1.
Winston threw five touchdown passes in his starting debut with the Saints — with zero turnovers — as they routed the Green Bay Packers 38-3 in their makeshift “home” venue at Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field. He capped his day with a 55-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Deonte Harris in the fourth quarter, while New Orleans’ defense was just as dominant with two interceptions against reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers.
Winston, 27, was actually one of 10 new starters for the Saints in Week 1 because of Brees’ retirement, an offseason salary-cap purge, injuries and a suspension. The team also lost standout center Erik McCoy to an unspecified leg injury in the first quarter.
On top of that, the Saints spent the past two weeks training in the Dallas area after Hurricane Ida left most of the New Orleans area without power when it hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.
Nevertheless, Winston and the Saints responded with one of the most efficient and dominant performances of the entire Sean Payton era. They possessed the ball for 21:51 in the first half; it what was the Saints’ largest time of possession since 2000. And they became the first NFL team to put together back-to-back 15-play touchdown drives since 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Winston was remarkably effective for most of the game, often settling for smart checkdowns or scrambling away from pressure — as he ran four times for 38 yards and three first downs. He had just 93 passing yards before adding the 55-yard home run to Harris early in the fourth quarter. Winston did have one interception in the second half that was nullified by a personal foul penalty.
The Saints will return this week to Dallas , where they have been training at TCU’s facilities. It’s unclear when they will go home to New Orleans now that power is returning throughout the area. Their next home game is scheduled for Week 4 against the New York Giants.
How’s this for weird: There was a quarterback in Sunday’s Packers-Saints game running a controlled, high-scoring offense, tossing moon-shot touchdowns and enjoying controversial bail-out calls from the refs … and it wasn’t Aaron Rodgers.
There was a quarterback in the same game who was making off-balance, ill-advised throws that turned into interceptions before getting benched when the game was out of reach … and it wasn’t Jameis Winston.
Packers-Saints was already a strange matchup given that it took place in Jacksonville, a result of Hurricane Ida devastating the Saints’ game options. Even more shocking: the fact that Winston, in his debut as the Saints’ starting quarterback, transformed into Aaron Rodgers … right in front of Rodgers.
Yes, Jameis Winston — he of the heavily discounted crab legs, he of the ill-advised tabletop public declarations, he of the peculiar pregame motivational speeches, he of the interceptions by the armload — that Jameis Winston thoroughly outplayed reigning MVP Rodgers on Sunday, throwing five touchdowns and leading New Orleans to a stunning 38-3 victory.
How impressive was Winston’s performance? His BetMGM odds to win the MVP jumped from +5000 to +3500 during the game. It’s a testament to a remarkable two-year turnaround for the former first overall draft pick.
The last time Winston started a game, back in 2019, he was sputtering his way through the end of his tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Beguiled by his skills, infuriated by his miscues, Tampa Bay delayed a stay-or-go decision on Winston as long as it possibly could, finally cutting ties with him after Winston completed a dubious 30-30 season — 33 touchdowns, 30 interceptions.
All Tampa Bay did then was bring in a new QB and win a Super Bowl, which had to wound Winston’s ego. And he had plenty of time to contemplate his fate and future, warming a bench in New Orleans behind Drew Brees. He appeared in only four games and threw all of 11 passes last season, an add-on and an afterthought.
But a funny thing happened. Winston took full advantage of his unplanned internship. He immersed himself in the Saints culture, learning from Brees and head coach Sean Payton. He showed up to camp looking leaner, ready to fight for the starting job with Payton’s handpicked favorite Taysom Hill.
He shook off doubts, tuned out critics and won the starting job. And suddenly a Saints team most believed would flail in the post-Brees era looks like a playoff contender.
Granted, it’s one game of 17. But it’s one game in which the Saints dismantled a preseason Super Bowl favorite on all sides of the ball. The defense held Rodgers to a mere 133 yards, intercepting him twice and relegating him to the bench with 10 minutes left in the game. This marked Rodgers’ worst loss as a starter, which will surely lead to plenty of conversation in and around Green Bay given the quarterback’s tumultuous offseason.
No such issues will trouble New Orleans this week. Alvin Kamara’s legs kept the Packers from dropping back too far on Winston. The offensive line protected Winston well enough that he had time to make a sandwich in the backfield, and he delivered a game with a tepid stat line — 14 of 20 for 148 yards, 55 of which came on one pass — but with a sparkling scoreboard. Any time you throw for five touchdowns, you generally don’t need to worry too much about any other number.
Winston got the kind of superstar call that’s usually the dominion of Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes: a questionable roughing-the-passer flag late in the third quarter that nullified a potential Green Bay interception. Two plays later, Winston found Juwan Johnson in the end zone to go up 31-3, and that was effectively the end of Green Bay’s flickering hopes.
The New Orleans Saints earned the right Sunday to celebrate after a 38-3 victory over the Green Bay Packers, and a locker room dance video is making the rounds on social media with all the big names involved.
Defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson is the man who filmed the action, and he got into the music as much as anyone. He made his way to coach Sean Payton and then the celebration includes quarterback Jameis Winston and defensive end Cam Jordan.
Payton has to be enjoying Sunday’s win as much as anyone, sending a message to the rest of the NFL that his team will be one to contend even with Drew Brees in retirement.
LET’S GEAUX #SAINTS!!!!
LOVE THIS TEAM #WHODAT
— Daniel Cardenez (@danielcardenez) September 12, 2021
Winston has to be over the moon after returning to Florida, where he played college football at Florida State, and throwing five touchdowns to lead the Saints to one of the week’s more dominant victories.
Saints fans are hoping more dance videos are on the way this season.
Sixth grade football. First day of practice. New team. New league. New city. New feeder system into the dominant high school program in the state of Alabama at the time, the powerful Hoover High School Bucs. Plenty of promising talent on a team whose roster included future college athletes and had stayed pretty much the same since they were in second grade.
A lot of kids would’ve slowly dipped a toe into that sea of uncertainty, hesitant to speak up or stand out, especially on Day One. Jameis Winston was different. The quarterback prodigy, whose reputation as a budding talent had begun to grow in the Birmingham area, walked up to his new head coach and said, “Coach, if you need me to play tackle, I’ll be the best tackle you’ve got.”
Greg Blackman, a legendary youth football coach in Hoover, appreciated the team-first gesture and the confidence but knew better. He told young Jameis, “Get back over there with the quarterbacks.”
If Jameis Winston wasn’t born to play quarterback, he was raised to the position by a tight-knit extended family that has nurtured him and supported him at every turn. When he trots onto the field Sunday in Jacksonville as the starting quarterback for the New Orleans Saints in his second year with the team, his seventh year in the NFL, his presence as the successor to the legendary Drew Brees may surprise casual observers. The expectations of outsiders may be lower than when Winston arrived in Tampa in 2015 as the NFL’s No. 1 overall draft choice with a Heisman Trophy, national championship and 26-1 record as a Florida State starter on his resume.
There is no surprise among the members of Team Jameis, who’ve watched him work to earn this second chance as an NFL starter. As for expectations, they’ve seen him succeed at every level of the game. Sure, Tampa Bay let him get away and he spent last season on the bench in New Orleans, but why wouldn’t he succeed after learning from a future Hall of Famer in Brees while playing in the system of a Super Bowl-winning head coach in Sean Payton?
As Blackman, Winston’s sixth-grade coach, said, “It wouldn’t surprise me if he was the MVP or Comeback Player of the Year. I really believe that.”
The confidence Winston inspires in the people closest to him may be surpassed only by the loyalty that flows both ways. Blackman, who’s in his 27th year coaching youth football in Hoover, said he travels to two or three of Winston’s games a year. Every Father’s Day, Blackman said, he gets a call or text from Winston. When Winston himself became a father for the first time, that Father’s Day, Blackman said, “I beat him to it.”
Otis Leverette, a former UAB and NFL defensive lineman turned personal trainer in the Birmingham area, has been training Winston since the quarterback was 14 years old. They met at a prospect camp before Winston’s freshman year of high school. The trainer watched the young man run the 40-yard dash three times in short order, improving his time with each attempt. That was Leverette’s introduction to Winston’s desire to push himself “to be the best he can be.”
Leverette said that work ethic hasn’t wavered through two 4,000-yard passing seasons in Winston’s first two NFL campaigns – making him the first quarterback to start his career with those numbers – or in the wake of his 5,100-yard season in his last year in Tampa, which made him only the eighth NFL quarterback to surpass the 5,000-yard mark.
Winston has brought at least 25 NFL teammates and friends through the years to join in his off-season workouts with Leverette, the trainer said, including some players who’ve made the Pro Bowl and others who may end up in the Hall of Fame. Those workouts extend over three or four days with the players getting up at 5 a.m. and the day lasting till 10 or 11 at night.
“I, Otis Leverette, have never seen anybody be able to last with him. Never. I’m talking about on his work schedule. Most guys, by Day 2 or 3, they’re like, ‘Oh, man, the hell with it. I’m good.’ That’s what makes him different. It’s not a fair-weather work ethic. It’s this is who I really am. It’s part of me. It’s a lifestyle for him.”
Leverette describes his relationship with Winston like that of an uncle and a nephew or a father and a son. Ask him to express his feelings about Winston earning Sunday’s start with the Saints, and he speaks to a mutual love of the game.
“The reason I’m excited more than anything is I’m a purist,” Leverette said. “Football saved my life. I believe in the game and what it does. When I see Jameis getting this opportunity, for me more than anything, it makes me happy. It puts me at peace because I know that the good guys are finally back on the field. And what I mean by ‘the good guys’ is, if there was some way to measure the love for the game, Jameis would be top five in the NFL.”
Mark Freeman is the head football coach at Thompson High School in Alabaster, Ala. His Warriors have won the last two state championships in Alabama’s largest high school classification. He was the head coach at Bessemer Academy in Winston’s hometown when he started working with the 11-year-old phenom during the scorching Alabama summers in football and baseball.
“It would be 95, 100 degrees,” Freeman said. “We’d work on baseball first. I’d work with him on pitching. After baseball, he would run out to the car and trade his cleats, and here he comes with the football. We would spend hours working on football, the basics of being a quarterback.”
What stood out about Winston at that age, beyond his obvious physical gifts, was his mind for the game, which was “way above and beyond” his peers, Freeman said. Winston would bring a notebook to those sessions and jot down nuggets from their discussions about coverages, asking questions Freeman would expect to hear from a high school quarterback.
Freeman, who’s been running a version of the Saints offense for years, spoke to Winston and his father the night the quarterback signed with New Orleans in 2020. Freeman told them, “This will be the best thing that’s ever going to happen to him. This is a blessing hooking up with the Saints.”
“I’m not shocked one bit for him to go there, have a chance to play, to earn the confidence of his teammates and be a serious, productive NFL quarterback again,” Freeman said. “I love Jameis. I’m tickled for him.”
The thread that runs through Team Jameis is Winston’s father, Antonor, a legendary youth football coach in his own right, whose Bessemer Tigers once ran up a 100-2 record in a five-year span. It was Antonor “Ant” Winston who coached his son at a young age but then surrounded him with other mentors to give him every opportunity to be successful.
“We always had rules,” the elder Winston said. “The Three Rules of Life. God, then school, then anything you put your mind to.”
Leverette said Antonor Winston hasn’t gotten the credit, suggesting that when Jameis is finished playing, his father will be mentioned with famous sports dads such as Archie Manning, Richard Williams and Earl Woods.
“I love Otis for saying that, but like in the Bible, it says it takes a village to raise a child,” Antonor said. “When you can create a whole nation to help you with that child, I can’t take all that credit. It took a whole nation from me to my wife to his grandmother” to positive influences such as Leverette, Freeman and Blackman.
Antonor said he learned a lesson from fathers such as the Saints legend Manning, whose quarterback sons Peyton and Eli both had memorable NFL careers of their own, including Peyton’s recent induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“What I learned from Archie and others was to try to keep positive people around (Jameis),” Antonor said, “because what I learned through this process is everybody is not going to be for you.”
Like virtually every NFL quarterback, Jameis Winston has critics and skeptics. As he prepares to make his first start for the Saints, at the still-young age of 27, he also has an extended family that believes in him as strongly as ever. His father spoke for Team Jameis when he expressed his feelings about seeing his son under center come Sunday.
“I don’t think the word is ‘excited,’ ” Antonor Winston said. “I think I’m more proud of him.”