Wednesday, 6 a.m.
Last year, he was a beginner. A colt. A newcomer.
Oh, it was still possible to look at Jameis Winston and to like what you saw. Even then, he had the uncommon leadership and the unwavering competitive spirit. Even then, he had an arm that could make most of the throws, except for the deep ones, and his receivers couldn't get there anyway. Even then, you could see there was a fire to Winston.
Even then, you knew that someday, eventually, the Bucs and Winston would make each other pretty darned good.
A year ago, he was just getting started.
This year, the quarterback who is Jameis Winston is a lot closer to the finish.
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Long ago, he became the most important Buc of them all. Think about it. If Winston isn't good, the Bucs don't win. Simple as that. Oh, he might sputter and he might spew for much of the game, but at the end, he has to be very good, or winning does not happen.
Don't look now, but Winston has been dynamite for two months now. The Bucs? Maybe they've been nitroglycerin. Everything in Tampa Bay seems to be explosive these days.
"Leadership can take on many forms, but you also have to be able to back it up with your play and Jameis has done that," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "He’s got a unique style I would say, to pro football. That’s part of his youth. We’ve got to keep reminding ourselves he should be a senior in college right now. But it’s refreshing – I’ve said it many times, if you didn’t know better, it could come across almost as corny sometimes, but when Jameis does it, it’s not. I’m saying, it doesn’t come across as corny at all when he does it.
"If I said some of the stuff he did, or some other quarterbacks I’ve been around — because it wouldn’t be them. But that’s Jameis and that’s really who he is, it’s who he is every day. And after the players are around it, they’re attracted to that because sometimes Jameis says things that they wish they could say, or they wish they had it in them to say. And then he backs it up.”
Over the last eight games, Winston is 6-2. He's completed 64.8 percent of his passes. His rating is 101.7. He has 15 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. He's on pace for his second straight 4,000-yard season.
In other words, he's been a star. Not a talented kid. Not a prospect. Not a high draft pick. A star.
Oh, the season didn't start that way. Winston had a horrid start to the season. During the Bucs' three-game losing streak, he threw only four touchdowns and seven interceptions. His rating was 60.9. He completed 55.8 percent of his passes. He was sacked 10 times.
But I've always said that the best part about Winston is that he's a gamer. There are quarterbacks who look pretty, and who play pretty. There are quarterbacks who are boring with the game on the line as they are on the first drive of the day. Then there are ballplayers, players who will skin their knuckles to make a play. Winston is one of those.
Now, 28 games into a career, he has a football team marching behind him. He's the guy with five fourth-quarter game winning drives in 13 pro victories. He's the guy who writes letters to his teammates. You know Winston is? Winston is Tampa Bay. He looks like us. He competes like us.
Want some comparables? In his last eight games, Aaron Rodgers has a rating of 102.9, barely better than Winston. In his last eight games, Eli Manning has eight interceptions, double that of Winston. In the last eight games, Matt Ryan has 16 interceptions and five interceptions.
This is Winston playing with Vincent Jackson, without a healthy Doug Martin, with an offensive line that has held together by spackle, with last week's practice squad in his huddle.
You want a reason why these Bucs might make the playoffs yet?
It's Winston. He may will them there.
And if not, someone had better stop him.