Tampa Bay is on a bit of a roll, thanks to its rookie quarterback limiting his turnovers, being patient as a passer and ... throwing blocks like a fullback? Plus, Week 9’s spotlight player and 10 things to watch Sunday
Sitting home one morning this week. Phone pings. Text message from an NFL executive.
“Watch the QB,” was the message underneath a video clip. I pressed the arrow and watched.
Overtime in Tampa Bay-Atlanta. Second-and-eight for Tampa Bay at the Atlanta 11. The quarterback, Jameis Winston, takes the snap and pitches to running back Doug Martin. As Martin prepares to hit a hole between the right guard/tackle, Winston sprints into the gap and blocks middle linebacker Paul Worrilow, laying on him while Martin runs by. Gain of four. Would have been a gain of one or two without the Winston block.
That’s not how you judge the progress of a young quarterback, and certainly the Bucs aren’t going to want Winston to do that very often—if at all. But it is how you judge the progress of a football player. I asked Winston about the play Thursday afternoon.
“I just want to win so bad,” he told me over the phone from Tampa. “Will to win. And you have to understand what was going on at the time. I looked at our line in the huddle. This was overtime. This was toward the end of a 15-play drive. It’s hot. They’re beat. Tired. I just felt like we needed a spark. I just felt like I needed to try to do something to get us going. We’re all tired. Maybe they see me doing that, and they say they’ve got one more play in ’em. That could make a difference.”
The Bucs kicked a field goal on this first drive of overtime (15 plays, 68 yards), then held Atlanta on its first possession. And so, in the first half of his rookie season, Winston had engineered wins on the road against two of the Bucs’ biggest rivals—at New Orleans in Week 2 and now at Atlanta in Week 8.
Tampa is 3-4 entering a surprisingly interesting test at home Sunday with the NFC East-leading (but vulnerable) New York Giants. The Bucs are 2-1 since Winston’s meltdown game, a four-interception debacle at Carolina on Oct. 4. And in those three games, Tampa has scored 30.3 points per game, and Winston (four touchdowns, no picks) has a passer rating of 110.5.
“I had a big wakeup call those first few games,” Winston said. The Bucs started 1-3, and Winston threw seven interceptions. “After the Carolina game, I felt like I lost that game for us, and I was so down. A division game at home. I just can’t play like that. It was awful. But my teammates, my coaches, coach [Dirk] Koetter, coach [Mike] Bajakian, basically said to me, ‘Hey, you’re going to have games like this. It’s the NFL.’ That opened my eyes.”
Koetter has been big on ball protection with his young quarterback—what coordinator wouldn’t be? And what you see when you watch Winston now is a player more attuned to seeing the field, more inclined to freeze a safety with a look before throwing the ball.
Case in point: Last week in Atlanta, late in the first half, Winston had the Bucs at Atlanta’s 20-yard line. Two receivers were split left, including rookie Donteea Dye in the slot. At the snap, tight end Cameron Brate ran up the right seam from his spot tight to the formation. Winston looked left, at the curling Dye. For a second, center-fielding Atlanta safety Ricardo Allen, in the deep middle, put his foot in the ground because he thought Winston was going to Dye. Then, quickly, Winston unleashed a ball for Brate three yards deep in the end zone. Allen couldn’t get back in time to provide help, and the ball nestled easily into Brate’s arms. Touchdown.
One other interesting play I saw re-watching the game. Winston ran for a four-yard touchdown on what appeared to be a broken play midway through the third quarter. It actually was an interesting design. Dye went in motion, left to right, and Winston had the option to shovel-pass a throw to him. But cornerback Jalen Collins was lurking near the goal line, spying Dye. And another blitzing corner, Robert Alford, looked like he could have picked the ball off and run forever if Winston actually shoveled the ball toward Dye. So Winston barreled ahead and ran it in for the touchdown.
In short, watching the Atlanta game on tape, you see good signs for Winston. And I wondered: Is it possible we were so consumed with questioning everything about Winston after last season that we didn’t see enough of what the Bucs saw? We questioned his goodness and character after the sexual-assault allegation. We questioned his judgment after the shoplifting incident at the grocery story. We questioned his football smarts after his 18 interceptions in 2014. We questioned his dedication to football (well, not many did, but some) after he told me he’d love to play baseball too, someday, and maybe play two sports at once. (He was Florida State’s closer in college, and could throw 95 mph.)
But what the Bucs have found in Winston, those around the team say, is a competitive player who leads better than a rookie should (he led the pregame huddle, urging his mates to pick up linebacker Kwon Alexander, whose brother was shot dead two night before the Atlanta game) and has learned early that his college team could survive his carelessness, but his pro team cannot.
“Our offense has come together quicker, hit on all cylinders before we expected,” said Winston. “Our offensive line’s been blocking great, with all the changes there. I think I am being way more patient, at least with reads, seeing things, seeing the whole field. I have always been an aggressive kind of guy, but you realize you have put the offense in jeopardy when you’re too aggressive. So it’s a learning process there.
“I am proud of being patient, and putting my energy into all the little things, concentrating on all the details, the mechanics, and not just thinking, ‘I’ve got to make a big play.’”
Funny how much things have changed in two months. The storyline early was that Marcus Mariota was way ahead of Winston, after Tennessee won the first game of the season in a duel of the top two rookies in the 2015 draft. But in this marathon of a season (and of two careers), there are miles to go before we sleep. Winston is moving along quite nicely.
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About Last Night …
Cincinnati 31, Cleveland 10. So … you wondered, perhaps, about an offensive coordinator who loves the deep ball, and you wondered what a healthy and reliable tight end might mean in his offense? We have the answer. Bengals play-caller Hue Jackson finally had a sturdy and steady tight end, Tyler Eifert, and now we’d see what he could do with him. At the season’s midpoint, following his high-impact, three-touchdown game Thursday night, Eifert leads the NFL with nine touchdown receptions (two more than anyone else in the league). Get this: Eifert’s nine touchdowns are one more than the roster of Cincinnati’s talented wide receivers. It’s hard to imagine a team with better depth of offensive weaponry in football today, and it was on display Thursday night.
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Player You Need To Know This Week
Linval Joseph, nose tackle, Minnesota (number 98). Todd Gurley comes to the University of Minnesota’s campus Sunday to try to beat the Vikings by himself. At least that’s the storyline you’d be led to believe after the past four games. Gurley’s averaged 142.3 rushing yards per game in those four outings, and he’ll face a fairly generous run front in Minnesota. Vikes are giving up 4.4 yards per rush. But Joseph is the one guy up front having an outstanding year, and he’ll have to be stout to give the Vikings a chance to slow down Joseph. If Minnesota is going to win this game, Joseph and excellent run-supporting safety Harrison Smith must have big days.
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Fantasy Player You Need to Know This Week
Jeremy Langford, running back, Chicago. With Matt Forte likely out for two weeks with a right knee injury, Langford, the rookie fourth-round pick from Michigan State, gets the start in San Diego. There’s a big reason to like Langford, and like him a lot, on Monday. Check out the Chargers’ average yards per rush allowed: 5.01 … the worst in the NFL at midseason. Unless the rest of your league’s asleep in the pickup department this week, it’s probably useless to rush to the waiver wire when you read this, but you can try. If he’s available, be thankful you’re in a league with a bunch of lugnuts.
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Stat of the Week
Only one NFL player this year has gained at least 75 yards rushing, receiving, kickoff-returning and punt-returning. Can you guess who he is?
1. He’s one of Odell Beckham Jr.’s best friends.
2. He was born in Metairie, La., where the Saints’ headquarters is.
3. He sent his college stipend money home to his mother to help with finances at home.
The player: Miami’s Jarvis Landry. His on-field résumé through seven games:
Rush yards: 77.
Receiving yards: 466.
Kick-return yards: 208.
Punt-return yards: 210.
Quote of the Week
“We have unfinished business with Indy. We want this game bad. I mean, real bad.”
—Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr., to me, recalling the 24-13 home playoff loss to the Colts last January, and looking forward to Sunday’s late-afternoon game in Indy.
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Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Paul Brown: A Football Life. In 1984, I had the good fortune to break into football writing covering the Cincinnati Bengals. Good fortune because every day during a loooooong training camp, with two-a-days nearly every broiling day in Wilmington, Ohio, I watched football practices with Bengals owner Paul Brown, who nearly four decades earlier, at the end of World War II, founded the Cleveland Browns and coached them to seven championships in the first 10 years of their existence. I bring it up because NFL Network debuts “Paul Brown: A Football Life” Friday night at 9 p.m. Set your DVRs, please. If you love football, you need to know why this man is so important to the history of the game. “There’s nobody in the game that I have more respect for than Paul Brown,” Bill Belichick says in the show. “His contributions to the game, to the way it’s played, to protective equipment, to the playbook … every film breakdown, every meeting and everything that he did as a coach, 50 years later everybody is still basically doing the same thing. I really think of him as the father of professional football.” I urge you, if you like football, to learn about this man.
2. Manning Lang Syne. Denver-Indianapolis could well be Peyton Manning’s last game ever in Indiana; he may not play next year anyway, and the Colts are locked into a 2016 game at Denver already. Since leaving Indy, Manning is 1-2 against the Colts, and 0-1 at Lucas Oil Stadium. This time, the Denver defense gives him a decided edge.
3. Manning chasing Favre. Could be an amazing scene Sunday in Indy. Manning needs 284 yards to pass Brett Favre as the leader in career passing yards. He’d do it in 38 fewer games if it happens Sunday; that’s two-and-a-half fewer seasons. Favre’s record is 71,838. The way the oblong spheroid is tossed around these days, there’s no doubt in my mind someone—maybe someone not born yet—will one day break whatever mark Manning leaves when he retires.
4. Pumping the brakes on Vernon Davis. Last year-and-a-half in San Francisco for the newly acquired Denver tight end: 44 catches, 24 games, 9.98 yards per catch. I’d still expect Owen Daniels to be the number one tight end target for Peyton Manning the rest of this season.
5. Aaron Rodgers vs. Cam Newton. Stunning stat of the week: Carolina has outscored Green Bay this year, 191-174. Rodgers is throwing for six yards more per game than Newton. Not 106. Six. Packers (6-1) at Panthers (7-0) in the early afternoon window Sunday. A really good one.
6. Detroit roiling. Lions will be the subject of the most rumors this weekend. I have zero idea what they’ll do, but what interests me the most is the future of Matthew Stafford, who’s having a crummy year and has a non-guaranteed deal next year. I will, however, go on record saying whoever coaches and runs the Lions absolutely, positively should keep Stafford. He’s 27. He’s a Fouts type. He’s got a plus-48 career touchdown-to-interception ratio.
7. The hottest coach/GM candidate. I’ve always thought Josh McDaniels would leave New England only for a job that had a very good quarterback. Could a McDaniels/Nick Caserio as coach/GM from New England tempt Jim Irsay in Indianapolis, or whoever Martha Ford designates as headhunter in Detroit? Head coaches haven’t been fired in either place, obviously, but it would be a surprise if either Jim Caldwell in Detroit or Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis makes it to 2016. McDaniels/Scott Pioli might be another to watch as a combo platter.
8. Returning to the scene of his prime. DeMarco Murray, who won a rushing title last year playing in Dallas, and the Eagles play in Texas on Sunday night. Could be more significant to say Ryan Mathews and the Eagles play in Texas on Sunday night. Mathews: 342 rushing yards, 6.1 per carry. Murray: 307 rushing yards, 3.5 per carry.
9. Miami at Buffalo. Winner has a playoff pulse. Loser gets to endure the ugly world of Twitter for the next two months.
10. Mike Mularkey’s tryout begins. Titans at Saints in the first of nine trials by fire for Tennessee's interim coach. New Orleans has scored 110 points in the past three weeks, and won all three of those games. Look on the bright side, Titanians: 7-0 Carolina is coming to Nashville next week.
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