In many ways, Sunday was the biggest game of Jameis Winston’s athletic career. At 27, he has plenty of NFL life left, but only if he cuts out the turnovers that were so ruinous in his five Tampa seasons. He didn’t try to make the day too big, but three hours before the Saints played Green Bay, he boarded the first bus at the Saints’ hotel. Before going to his seat, Winston stopped at the first row and looked to his left, where Sean Payton was sitting.
“I’ve dreamed of this moment my whole life,” Winston told Payton.
When Winston was in middle school in Alabama, Payton and Drew Brees began making beautiful music together running the Saints’ offense, and the games would be on TV most weekends in his house. When the Saints won the Super Bowl, Winston was a high school sophomore, and he longed to play in such a quarterback-friendly offense. And when he bombed out of Tampa in 2019, well, if he couldn’t start somewhere (he didn’t have the chance), he wanted to go to New Orleans, even to sit.
So winning the starting quarterback job in camp this summer was a thrill for Winston, and Week 1, with Payton in his ear for four quarters, was a thrill too.
You know that Winston Rose to the first challenge. In the shocking 38-3 rout of the Packers at their Hurricane Ida-caused temp home field in Jacksonville, Winston threw five touchdown passes and ran for 37 yards. As importantly, Winston didn’t throw an interception in 59 offensive snaps, didn’t fumble in 59 offensive snaps, and wasn’t sacked in 20 passing snaps. All those who had Winston with a passer rating 94 points better than Aaron Rodgers, raise your hand. I thought so.
After the game, I asked Winston over the phone from Florida: “What’s the play you’re most proud of today? What’s the play you made that you’ll always remember?”
“Imma tell you!” Winston said excitedly. “Fake wide zone to the left, late in the first quarter. I think we were at the Green Bay 37. I threw the ball away.”
You threw five touchdown passes today, I reminded him. You just mentioned an incompletion.
“We had this same play called the other day in practice,” Winston said. “And I was trying to make a play, and I threw it, and [Saints linebacker] Kaden Elliss intercepted it. So I just said to myself, If we call that play in the game this week, and it’s not there, I’m gonna throw it so high out of bounds that Shaq can’t pick it off. And that’s what I did.”
This was the Saints’ 14th play of the game. I’ve watched it eight or 10 times now, and it’s totally unremarkable, except for one thing. Alvin Kamara does a wheel route to the left, covered right away by linebacker Jonathan Garvin. Winston looks to the left, thinks about throwing it, sees Garvin lying in wait about five yards away, shifts his gaze downfield to covered receivers, returns to the left, and throws it over Shaq’s head. Way over. The remarkable thing, and the reason Winston loved it, is he wasn’t baited into taking a dumb chance.
“One of the great things I learned from playing with Drew [Brees] last year was decisions over results,” Winston went on. “Sometimes the right decision is a play that gains nothing. Just keep making good decision after good decision, and the game’s going to go okay.”
Suddenly, a voice piped in from near Winston. I recognized it right away: Sean Payton’s.
“Hey!” Payton said, sort of irritated, sort of good-natured. “Will you stop eating the cheese already! It’s only one game! Get off the phone!”
“Gottagosorry,” is what came out of Winston’s mouth, and the line went dead.
Football’s back, and stories reign. My favorite of the week: the early redemption of Jameis Winston.
Winston thinks he’s gone to QB Nirvana. You can probably tell. On Saturday night in Jacksonville, for the first time post-Brees, Payton held what he calls his Dot Meeting with Winston and the coaches. Payton goes over the playcalls for every situation in the game—about 18 of them, like play-action, screens, quarterback-movement plays, empty backfield, two-minute—and the starting quarterback tells Payton what he hopes to see called in every section. For years, Brees would give his preferences, and Payton would put a black Sharpie dot right next to the play on the playsheet he’d take onto the sideline the next day.
This weekend was the first time for Winston in a Dot Meeting. “We get to the first section of the playsheet,” Payton told me Sunday night, “and he’s telling me he likes every play. So I tell him, ‘You can’t tell me you like every play. Otherwise, there’s no sense in having a Dot Meeting!’ “
But Winston wasn’t saying that because he was trying to brown-nose the coach and tell him how great the plays he picked for the game plan were. He just figured if Payton drew ‘em up, they’d work in the game. Winston also told him he wanted to hear more from Payton in his helmet—more advice, more gut feeling about what was coming from the defense. And when he got on the bus early Sunday afternoon in Jacksonville and told Payton this day was a dream for him, it hit Payton.
“You hear that, and you want to do right by your student,” Payton said.
Payton was pleasantly surprised with how comfortable Winston was running; he hadn’t done much of it in camp. But on the first series of the game he broke the pocket for 11 and 15-yard scrambles, setting up an Aldrick Rosas field goal. From there, the game plan wasn’t about quick strikes and explosive plays. Payton wanted to keep Rodgers off the field. New Orleans won the time of possession stat by nine minutes and limited Green Bay to nine unproductive possessions. On the 10-minute drive that made it 17-0 in the second quarter, the Saints called 11 runs and four passes, and Payton went for it on fourth-and-goal from the one, Winston hitting wideout Juwan Johnson for a one-yard TD.
Six of the Saints’ first seven drives resulted in scores. With minutes left, it was 38-3 and Rodgers had given way to Jordan Love. All in all, not at all what we saw coming.
That includes Winston’s favorite play of the game, the throwaway—six feet over Kamara’s head on the left sideline.
“I love that,” Payton said. “I really love it. When people say, ‘Throw it away!’ what does that mean exactly? There’s more to it than just know when to throw it away—it’s got to fit in everything that you do. That play at the 37 that he threw away is a winning play. He knows we’ve got other plays that are going to work well and are coming.”
When I said a few paragraphs ago that we’ll spend days overreacting to what we saw Sunday, that means the really good stuff too—like Winston being risk-averse and not turning it over. Misfortune in the NFL, Payton said, “is always around the corner. But I do know this: The next time we have a quarterback who leads the league in interceptions will be the first time.”
Winston says he doesn’t approach a game with the attitude now of, I’m not going to turn it over. “You can’t play that way,” he said. “I never said that in Tampa either. I never go into a game thinking, don’t throw a pick. We’ve got such an amazing defense, with great weapons all around me, and a franchise back [Kamara], that it’s a privilege for me to just play my part in all of it.”
It’s an interesting time for the Saints. This was a home game for them, due to Hurricane Ida wreaking havoc on Louisiana. So after the game they flew back to their temporary base at a luxury hotel in Dallas-Fort Worth. This week, they’ll practice for another week in Fort Worth at Texas Christian University. They’ll fly to Charlotte on Saturday to play game two at Carolina on Sunday. If New Orleans officials deem it practical and power is restored nearly in full to the area, the Saints will fly to New Orleans after the Carolina game and practice at home in week three before playing at New England on Sept. 26. Then, if all goes well, they’d play their first game in New Orleans this year Oct. 3 against the Giants.
It’s interesting, too, that cornerback Marshon Lattimore—who played Green Bay receivers tough and had a huge pass-broken-up against against Davante Adams on Sunday—finalized a five-year extension at the pre-game team meal Sunday. Not ideal, but in this transient world the Saints inhabit, it didn’t impact them negatively in Week 1.
A complementary quarterback with a good supporting cast and a tight defense won for the Saints on Sunday. Misfortune might be around the corner, but not this week. And maybe not for a while with a quarterback who’s determined to be Payton’s long-term answer at the position.
After the game, Payton told his team, “There wasn’t a bigger statement in the NFL today than our win, right here.” Beating a 2020 Final Four team with an all-time quarterback by 35—that’s quite a statement.