Thursday, 6 a.m.
The clock is ticking. In the huddle, you can hear labored breathing. There is blood on your jersey, and it isn't yours.
In year two, this is where Jameis Winston needs to be better.
The game is still close, because most NFL games are. The team's focus needs to be directed so this opportunity does not slip away. The end zone seems a mile away.
This is the moment you need to seize.
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Forget the pretty touchdown pass in the first quarter and the ugly interception in the third and the sack that left you limping in the third. Ignore that penalty you thought was silly. No one is going to remember the team's fumble.
This is fourth quarter time, and when you talk about the improvement of a second-year quarterback, it is here where you start. If Winston is going to build on an impressive first season, he will do so by refusing to let the game go the other way. This is where the great ones stand up. This is where ESPN goes for its highlights.
Yeah, Winston should be better. He should throw for more than his 4,042 yards, and he should account for more than his 22 touchdown passes, and he should reduce his 15 interceptions. In Year Two, everyone wants more. That goes without saying. His rating needs to be better than 84.2. His completion percentage should be better than 58.3.
But you know what really needs to be increased?
His moments. His wins. His comebacks.
Think back to a year ago. The Bucs trailed Houston 10-9 going into the fourth quarter. They lost. They led Washington 24-21. They lost. They led the Giants 20-18 in the fourth. They lost. They trailed Indy 19-12. They lost. They led Chicago 14-13. They lost.
If the offense had been just a bit better at scoring (they were 26th in the NFL in fourth-quarter points with 5.6), then the Bucs don't finish 6-10. As bad as the defense was, as spotty as the kicking was, as penalty-crazy as the team was, the Bucs needed one better quarter, sometimes one better series, and they were decent.
Now comes another year, and a tougher schedule. And fourth quarters all over again.
For the Bucs, the good news is that Winston is entering his second season. That's often a season of great growth.
Remember 1984 and Dan Marino? Marino had a pretty good rookie season, but in year two, he blew up. His wins went from seven to 14. His touchdown passes went from 20 to 48. His yardage more than doubled to 5,084. Granted, the Dolphins had been in the Super Bowl two years before, and the offensive line had just begun to show its age.
How about John Elway the same year? Elway went from four wins to 12. His touchdown passes went from seven to 18.
Payton Manning won three times as a rookie. He won 13 times in year two. He reduced his interceptions from 28 to 15.
As a rookie, Eli Manning started seven games, and he lost six. In his second year, he led his team to 11 wins. His touchdowns went from six to 24.
Teddy Bridgewater won six games as a rookie. He won 11 in his second year.
(Quarterbacks such as Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre barely played as rookies.)
Look, everyone knows it isn't just the quarterback. If the Bucs' defense had covered anyone, or if it had threatened a passer, or if it was a better team at scoring, then the Bucs wouldn't have been 6-10, either. But it's a quarterback's league. There is no doubt that the one player the Bucs need to be better is Winston. The one guy who has to take over in fourth quarters is Winston.
If he can use this season as a launch pad, then the Bucs could finally turn around their fortunes.
Thirty touchdowns? That's possible. Forty-five hundred yards? That's possible.