Jameis Winston’s Next Act: Where Else but New Orleans?


In the video, posted three weeks ago on Twitter, Jameis Winston has his right arm cocked, feet shuffling as if he’s moving around the pocket, as his trainer launches an oversize speed bag at him, again and again. The drill, it seems, is intended to simulate defensive pressure, and Winston, looking trim and coiled, evades the bag each time.

Winston’s high-profile career, through college and five seasons in the N.F.L., has been defined as much by its volatility — extreme highs and perplexing lows — as his transgressions, and it feels, to a degree, like he has spent most of it as if in that clip, encountering trouble and then trying to dodge it.

Winston’s career has come to be defined by two almost farcical accomplishments. He spawned memes that have persisted since, as a college student, he took crab legs from a Florida supermarket without paying for them, and he stirred wagers last season at Tampa Bay as he approached ignominy: Would he become the first player to throw for 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season? (He would.)

Now it has led him to New Orleans, where Winston, unable to find a starting job elsewhere after Tampa Bay signed Tom Brady, agreed to a one-year deal to back up the Saints’ Drew Brees. Learning from Brees and Coach Sean Payton, an excellent molder of quarterbacks, could help Winston, the Buccaneers’ franchise leader in passing yardage and touchdowns, re-establish his value. But whether he uses this transition to steady himself and his career depends entirely on him.

“Just showing up there every day, getting coached and developed in that program, will serve him well,” Mike Tannenbaum, a longtime front-office executive with the Jets and the Miami Dolphins, said in an interview. “Obviously, the more tape he has, the better. But it’s not necessary. A year from now, he’ll have learned from Clyde Christensen and Bruce Arians and Sean Payton, and that’s a really good résumé to have.”

Across his five years in Tampa Bay, he played for three head coaches. But in his final season there, he was led by an all-star staff that included Arians, the head coach; Christensen, the quarterbacks coach; and Byron Leftwich, the offensive coordinator. They were unable to leverage Winston’s superior arm strength and improve his risk management. He led the league in passing yardage, but also in interceptions, the exasperating totality of his performance embodied by his final four games. In them, he passed for 450 yards in consecutive victories, then threw a combined six interceptions in consecutive losses. His final pass as a Buccaneer was intercepted (No. 30) and returned for the winning touchdown in overtime.

The next day, Arians, musing on off-season quarterback machinations, savaged Winston to reporters, saying, “If we can win with this one, we can definitely win with another one, too.” Here is where a wiseacre would note that it makes sense for Winston to play for the Saints — who also play in the N.F.C. South and who have picked off his throws 10 times — because he has so much experience throwing to the Saints already, anyway.

The situations are not totally analogous, but Winston, at 26, is facing a similar demarcation point in his career as Brees, 41, did 14 years ago. When speaking with his teammates, Brees often likens an N.F.L. career to a ticking bomb, because it can end at any time — and for him, it nearly did, at the end of the 2005 season. With free agency looming, he sustained a shoulder injury so severe that his surgeon later called Brees’s comeback the most remarkable one among his former patients.

In New Orleans, Brees has won a Super Bowl, smashed passing records and developed into one of the best quarterbacks in N.F.L. history. Spending a year under Payton’s tutelage won’t automatically produce a comparable restorative effect on Winston’s future. And even though Winston challenges what Payton, a strict adherent to his mentor Bill Parcells’s commandments for quarterbacks, prioritizes at the position — ball security — there was no better landing spot for Winston than New Orleans.

“If you believe in the ability that you have,” Winston said in a conference call Wednesday, “if you believe — really, if you have faith that you will become a starting quarterback again — you take this opportunity in a heartbeat.”

The Saints’ opportunism — flouting the notion that the only way to procure young talent is through the draft — yielded a credible and relatively cap-friendly backup, freeing Taysom Hill, the nominal third-stringer, to do what he does best as long as Brees is starting: play other positions.

With the primary inflection points of the off-season now complete — the frenzied beginning to free agency, in mid-March, and then the draft — only a few teams’ quarterback situations remain unsettled: Chicago, Washington and maybe New England, where, barring a sudden change, Jarrett Stidham has the unenviable task of succeeding Brady.

“I don’t think Cam’s going to say, ‘I’m going to go be a backup somewhere,’” said Marc Ross, who was a longtime personnel executive with the Giants and the Eagles, and is now an NFL Network analyst. “Cam still feels that he’s good enough to start and win and take teams to a Super Bowl. With Jameis, it’s a whole different situation for him.”

Speaking in a radio interview on Monday, a day before Winston’s deal was announced, the Saints’ assistant general manager, Jeff Ireland, lauded him for recognizing the landscape. In New Orleans, Ireland told “The Matt Mosley Show” on ESPN Central Texas, Winston “will learn more football in a year than he has in his lifetime.”

The league is littered with high draft picks, like Winston, who were given multiple chances to succeed but, because of either circumstances or their own malfunctions, failed to emerge as a reliable starter. Some, like Mark Sanchez, bounced around before retiring, while others, like Blake Bortles, Blaine Gabbert and Robert Griffin III, earned backup roles.

Winston would presumably prefer his career arc to echo that of a quarterback who resurfaced as a starter. Ryan Tannehill, after being traded to Tennessee from Miami, last season usurped the ineffective starter Marcus Mariota — the Titans won nine of 13 games with Tannehill under center and reached the A.F.C. championship — and landed a four-year, $118 million contract extension.

Winston’s parallel is more hopefully Teddy Bridgewater. A former Pro Bowl selection, he turned down a one-year, $10 million offer from Miami before last season to remain the Saints backup. When Brees tore a thumb ligament last season, Bridgewater, 27, won all five starts in his absence, and in the off-season signed a three-year, $63 million contract to start in Carolina.

If Winston improves in New Orleans, he will have done so by opting to learn from others and by putting himself in a better position, two things he has struggled to do in his N.F.L. career.





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