After months of hype and speculation, the much-anticipated game debut of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston is now in the rear-view mirror.
Winston’s performance was exactly what should have been expected from a rookie starter captaining the offense of a team that went 2-14 last season, as this year’s top overall draft pick showed both flashes of brilliance and moments of head-scratching accuracy and decision-making.
But if there’s one thing the average NFL fan does better than anything, it’s overreact.
That’s just what many did in the wake of Winston’s performance, pouncing on his early-game struggles and already jumping the gun on the “bust” label after just 19 preseason pass attempts:
Winston certainly looked a bit uncomfortable on the game’s first few series, sailing a couple of throws and taking a blind-side sack from Everson Griffen, who beat rookie left tackle Donovan Smith with a sick spin move.
But Winston’s interception was more a product of Mike Evans being held while trying to make it up the seam than it was about Winston putting the ball in the wrong place. Evans was working out of the slot and Winston tried to loft the ball and give his gigantic receiver a chance to go up and make a play, but that’s hard to do when both arms are being tied down by a defender.
Winston settled down and provided the Bucs with a few encouraging moments, including his first completion, a 40-yard dart down the right sideline to Vincent Jackson.
The rookie also showed his exceptional pocket awareness on multiple occasions. He avoided a would-be sack for a safety and turned it into a short gain, then later would engineer an impressive two-minute drill that ended with an eight-yard touchdown scramble on 3rd-and-7.
At the end of his night, Winston had completed nine of his 19 passes for 131 yards, an interception and a touchdown run—modest numbers for those expecting the top overall pick to dominate NFL competition from day one, but par for the course for those who expected an up-and-down performance from a rookie in his first taste of real NFL competition.
It’s understandable for Tampa Bay’s fanbase to be on edge when it comes to Winston, as he’s been pegged as the savior of a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy following the 2002 season.
But two quarters of a preseason game is a bit early to start jumping ship on an investment that will take time to develop.
Thankfully, there are some Bucs fans out there who have the right perspective on Winston’s performance, understanding it will take plenty of patience for their new quarterback to develop into the star they hope he’ll be one day:
For just one example of how pointless it is to overreact to a rookie quarterback’s preseason performance, let’s go back to August 1998, when the top two picks in the NFL draft squared off against one another prior to the regular season.
In their first NFL game action, San Diego Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf “outdueled” Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, throwing for 172 yards and rushing for a touchdown. Manning completed 11 of his 21 passes for 123 yards and was picked off twice, and the Colts fell to the Bolts 33-3.
That game clearly set the tone for the NFL careers of those two quarterbacks. Sure.
Does Winston have the physical tools and football intelligence to become an NFL star? Absolutely. Will that manifest after a couple of weeks of training-camp practice? Not likely. It was one half of football against a Vikings team that had already worked out their first-game jitters the week before against the Pittsburgh Steelers, while the Bucs were getting their first game action of the year.
Winston may have plenty of weapons at the ready in the passing game, but his offensive line is a far cry from having the likes of Cam Erving, Tre’ Jackson and Josue Matias dominating ACC defensive linemen all day long. The Bucs are trying to break in two more rookie starters up front, including at the left tackle spot, which will take plenty of time on its own.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint, Bucs fans. It was 30 minutes of football, the first two quarters of a long road that could easily lead back to the playoffs and a championship-caliber franchise. Winston has that type of talent, intelligence and work ethic.
But when it comes to Winston’s performance last Saturday against the Vikings, many Bucs fans should take advice from one of the players they hope their quarterback can emulate down the road:
Take a deep breath, order some crab legs (too soon?) and give your new franchise quarterback a little more time before branding him the next JaMarcus Russell.
Luke Easterling is a Featured Columnist covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFL draft for Bleacher Report. He is also a Senior NFL Draft Analyst for Draft Breakdown. Follow him on Twitter @Luke Easterling.