What does Jameis think of Dak? Why do we care?
They may both be high-profile starters but every team has one. Something special about this one besides all the turnovers?
Under the circumstances, it was an appropriate question: What did Jameis Winston think of Dak Prescott? The quarterbacks had just faced off for the first time Sunday night in the Dallas Cowboys’ 26-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with Winston in his second season, he was, presumably, the right guy to evaluate the NFL’s best rookie quarterback. But it was way late. Dallas had just ended Tampa Bay’s winning streak at five games. The Buccaneers also had a two-plus-hour flight ahead. If Winston had brushed off the question, it wouldn’t have been surprising. He didn’t, though. Winston gave a thoughtful response. And with that one simple act, Winston again displayed the leadership that has the Buccaneers excited about their future.
After struggling early in the season, Winston got it turned around during the five-game run that also put Tampa Bay in playoff contention. Although Sunday’s loss was a significant setback at a bad time – Winston had two touchdown passes, but also committed four turnovers – the Buccaneers remain in the mix for a postseason berth with two games to play. They’ll need Winston to get into a groove once more following his worst performance since Week 4. For the Buccaneers, the good news is that Winston embraces everything that’s on his shoulders. By delivering at Dallas in his off-the-field role as the face of the team, Winston couldn’t have made his feelings clearer.
You can best believe that Winston wasn’t eager to comment on Prescott. The rookie delivered another dope performance while decisively outplaying Winston, so deconstructing what had happened was about as much fun for Winston as throwing a game-winning pick-six in the Super Bowl. But Winston gets it.
In the NFL, playing in the game is only a component, albeit the most important one, of a starting passer’s job. They’re also responsible for setting the overall tone for their teammates. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the locker room, the weight room, the film room, the interview room or the practice field, quarterbacks lead by example. At least the best ones do.
Here’s the other thing: Two young, talented brothers who play the most important position in professional sports linked up at Jerry World with all kinds of intrigue – a potential quarterback controversy has been percolating in Dallas – surrounding the game. Winston knew he would be asked about Prescott. He also gave a good answer.
“He’s amazing,” Winston said in an earnest tone. “He’s playing really good, and the team is playing really good around him. He’s taking care of the football. He definitely won the turnover battle against me. That’s how you win games.”
The last time we caught up with Winston, he was throwing the ball to Buccaneers opponents almost as much as he connected with his own dudes. Over the season’s first four weeks, Winston had eight interceptions. At that point, only the New York Jets’ Ryan Fitzpatrick had more with 10. If you’re a signal-caller, you don’t want to be mentioned in any sentence that includes Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tampa Bay was a 1-3 mess. There was reason for concern. What happened next provided reason for optimism.
Winston grinded. He self-scouted, being brutally honest with himself about his poor decision-making. What Winston found was that he had a lot of room to improve. It wasn’t a fun process. However, it was necessary.
Winston got his head together. Tampa Bay went 7-2 in its next nine games. Seven times during that stretch, Winston achieved impressive passer ratings of at least 93.6. Four times, he topped 106.2. He threw 15 touchdown passes and only four more interceptions. You know what you call that? Getting it done. Trent Dilfer wasn’t at all surprised.
Dilfer, the ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl-winning passer, has known Winston since he was a teenager. Dilfer instructed Winston at The Elite 11, widely considered the premier competition for high school quarterbacks. The ability to correctly assess what he was doing wrong back in September and October, and set out a course to fix it, is among many reasons that Winston will be a successful NFL signal-caller, Dilfer said.
“It’s amazing, because it’s not always this way, but all the things I learned about him when he was 17 at Elite 11, are all the things that helped him thrive at Florida State and are rapidly speeding up his learning curve now in the NFL,” Dilfer said of his former student. “He’s so dang smart. That’s the one thing that I keep hammering home, because people just don’t want to believe it. You can color in all the reasons why. I don’t need to say it. Nobody wants to admit how dang smart this kid is. But he is.”
We know why the doubters would question Winston’s intellect. Some of it is just straight racism. Enough said on that. Winston also had some serious issues that made people wonder if he’d ever see a successful day in the pros, none of which had to do with a college career in which he led the Seminoles to a national championship and won the Heisman Trophy. Last week, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft settled a federal lawsuit with a woman who accused him of rape. Since he arrived in Tampa Bay, Winston has been incident-free. Team officials rave about Winston’s work ethic, desire to improve and his commitment to his teammates. Again, nothing new there, Dilfer said.
“His ability to take on loads and loads and loads of information, in a quick amount of time, kind of process it internally and then go out and process it in the moment, is just phenomenal,” said Dilfer, who remains close to Winston. “His processing capacity is off the charts. He’s a learner. He loves to learn.
“He’s willing to look at himself in the mirror and go, ‘OK, this has been a problem. How do I fix it?’ He goes and learns from people around him how to fix it. Then he takes the information and puts in the work. Some guys are just stubborn. They won’t do that. But he has a competitive spirit. He also has a deep, authentic compassion and love for his teammates.”
Of course, at only 22, Winston is still a work in progress. He has to do better at controlling his emotions. Against the Cowboys, Winston lost his cool while sticking up for running back Doug Martin. In reaction to what he perceived to be a late hit on Martin, Winston head-butted Cowboys linebacker Justin Durant. The Buccaneers began the play on the Cowboys’ eight-yard line. On the drive – after Martin’s five-yard loss and the 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty on Winston – the Buccaneers wound up settling for a field goal. “I was protecting my teammate,” Winston said. “It was passion versus emotion. But I can’t do that.”
Overall, though, Winston has played most things correctly. When it comes to Winston, Doug Williams and Dilfer are on the same page.
The first African-American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl, Williams has mentored Winston for the past few years. Winston’s growth off the field is as impressive as his improvement on it, because “you can just see Jameis’ maturity, his understanding of the things he needs to do, in everything he does. What he has done more than anything, and I’ve seen this just getting better and better, is demonstrate great leadership.
“As a quarterback in this league, you have a lot of responsibilities that [fans] don’t even know about. But everyone around you [in the organization] is looking to see what you do. See how you handle everything. Jameis is doing a great job with all of that. The team has recognized that it is his team. Every team needs that guy. They need that quarterback everyone can look to and believe in that he’s the guy. He’s the leader. For Tampa, Jameis is that guy.”
Late Sunday night, Winston sounded the part. Before he left a lectern in the bowels of AT&T Stadium, Winston seemed to speaking directly to his teammates, offering reassurance that, despite the loss, all is not lost.
“We are still a family,” he said. “Just because we lost, [it] doesn’t mean we will separate from each other. We are a family and we are going to keep fighting – together.”
The Buccaneers look to Winston to lead them where they want to be. Clearly, it’s a responsibility he takes seriously.