After Jameis Winston's miserable NFL debut back in Week 1, the prevailing message from the Buccaneers was not to overreact. The same rule applies to Winston's brilliant Week 11 performance against the Eagles. Sure, he turned in a surgical performance, throwing five touchdown passes to five different receivers against a Philadelphia team that might be ripping apart at the seams, but let's see where he takes it from here.
The difference between the Buccaneers' opener and their 45–17 rout of Philadelphia, though, is that we now have 10 games from Winston to digest, making it easier to contextualize this performance. And there is little doubt that the improvements shown by Tampa Bay's rookie quarterback has accelerated his team's rebuilding timeline.
That's not to say that the Buccaneers are about to snap a seven-year postseason drought—Sunday's win bumped them only to 5–5, well back of the Panthers in the NFC South and outside the wild-card picture. But they are clearly light years ahead of where they were in Week 1.
Think back to that opener, a humiliating 42–14 loss to Tennessee. Winston's first pass of his NFL career was picked off by Coty Sensabaugh and returned for a touchdown. He wound up throwing two interceptions and two touchdowns on the day, and was badly outplayed by Marcus Mariota, the player selected immediately after him atop the 2015 draft.
“What does Jameis need to get better at? Quarterbacks have to make great decisions,” Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said a couple days later, via the Tampa Bay Times. “When they don't, bad things can happen. And when quarterbacks don't make good throws, bad things can happen there, too. So those are two examples … that hurt us that Jameis has got to do better at.”
Winston struggled again two weeks later in a loss at Houston, completing just nine of 19 passes. Carolina then picked him off four times the following Sunday, as the Bucs fell to 1–3.
At that point, it was fair to wonder if 2015 would just be a long, painful learning experience for Winston, as rookie seasons tend to be for quarterbacks. The future of coach Lovie Smith also then appeared to be tenuous, at best.
The situation has changed drastically since then, in large part because Winston has very quickly grown up as a player. The mistakes still happen—Winston threw a pair of picks in an ugly win over Dallas last week. However, the good has started to outweigh the bad, both for Winston and for Tampa Bay almost across the board. On Sunday, Winston's five touchdowns threatened to overshadow a brilliant 235-yard rushing performance from impending free agent-to-be Doug Martin. The Buccaneers' defense also forced four Philadelphia turnovers, three on interceptions by QB Mark Sanchez.
This is the dream when a franchise finds itself where Tampa Bay did last year. In 2014, the Buccaneers slopped their way to a 2–14 finish and the No. 1 draft pick. They needed a quarterback, and just happened to have their choice of either Winston or Mariota.
We've seen such situations go any number of ways. For every immediate turnaround like the one Andrew Luck helped spark in Indianapolis, there is the Blaine Gabbert or Ryan Leaf storyline. Frequently, the truth lies somewhere in between: the team improves, but only gradually and often not enough to win championships.
Who knows where the Winston journey is headed? No one in Tampa Bay will be pretending that this roster is where it eventually needs to be, despite Winston's growing chemistry with the likes of Martin, Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. In particular, the defense remains a work in progress, no matter what Sanchez might tell you after Sunday's game.
Tampa Bay has every reason to feel encouraged by what it's seen thus far, though.
For the teams that do not have a true franchise quarterback, the search to find one can feel endless. The Buccaneers' recent list of starters includes Josh McCown, Mike Glennon, Josh Freeman, Jeff Garcia and Bruce Gradkowski. Freeman's four-year tenure alone was reminder of how a franchise renovation can become stuck in the mud if a young quarterback never improves.
His is also a cautionary tale. Tampa Bay finished 10–6 in Freeman's second year (and his first as a full-time starter); the team went 4–12 and 7–9 the two subsequent seasons, before bailing on Freeman for 2013.
There are no guarantees Winston's future will stay bright. It's a waiting game, hopefully from the Bucs' perspective, dotted with indications that the arrow is pointed upward. Sunday provided another of those moments for a franchise that may be ahead of schedule.