'This Is Not over for Me'

Jameis Winston was a Heisman winner, national champion, top draft pick and stat giant. Now he's on the bench. But the 26-year-old Saints QB doesn't plan to stay there long. Winston gives B/R Mag an inside look at his plan to return to NFL stardom.
photo of Tyler Dunne Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterJune 9, 2020

Exasperation is the expectation. At least one rant, right? The past few months should have been impossible to process for a proud man like Jameis Winston.

He was the youngest player to ever win the Heisman. A national champion. A No. 1 overall pick. A quarterback with a cannon of a right arm who just threw for 5,109 yards—the eighth-most prolific passing season, you know, ever. His name is right there in the record books with legends: Manning and Brees and Brady and Roethlisberger and Mahomes and Marino. Indeed, his statistics through his first five pro seasons are eerily similar to those of the five-time MVP Peyton Manning.    

Thus, it'd be very easy for this quarterback with this resume to wonder if what happened back in free agency is some cruel conspiracy.

The last time we saw Winston, he sure seemed pissed. Moments after becoming the NFL's first 30-interception QB since 1988, after what'd be his final game as a Buccaneer, he took the podium and became fed up with questions about the picks. He told the world then, sternly, that if he fixes this one issue, "I'm going to be the best. That's bar none. You better check your sheet." He's glad he spoke up. He felt like those in the room were trying to make him out to be a terrible quarterback.

"I know what I'm worth," Winston tells B/R by phone from Alabama. "And I know day in and day out, without publicly coming in and saying it, that historically I'm one of the best quarterbacks to play the game."

So now that the dust has settled—after all the NFL's general managers and head coaches made it clear Winston, in fact, isn't even a starter at the moment—you half-expect him to detonate with fury.

Yet he does not. Not even close.

He defends his raw emotion in that moment, calling it a "confidence point" in his career, and Jameis Winston is genuinely rejuvenated…excited. You'd never know he's a backup. His voice spikes with very real enthusiasm. He isn't pissed at the Buccaneers, isn't pissed at anyone. Rather, Winston is 100 percent embracing what's essentially a do-or-die crossroads in his career.

"It's a love of the game, bro. It's bigger than me," he says. "Do I feel like I've earned my stripes? I do. Do I feel like I'm better than a lot of starting quarterbacks in this league? I do. But God has a plan that I haven't even thought of yet. I have to respect this game first. Respect is earned.

"So if a team believes I'm not good enough to be their starting quarterback, OK, let me earn my way back up. I've done it my whole life. It's not like it's just starting to happen."

And that's precisely what he plans to do: Earn it. Winston has a master plan to become an NFL starter again, one set into motion the instant that 2019 season concluded.

He went vegan, losing 17 pounds and counting.

He had Lasik surgery to improve his vision.

He's fixing the interception problem. Drill to drill.

He's now learning from a Canton-bound quarterback.

He's trying to strike the balance between staying true to himself as a football player while, still, evolving. So many people hear his name now, Jameis Winston, and think of one thing and one thing only: interceptions. Many calories have been burnt screaming about what he does wrong, but Winston believes in the essence of what he does right—and believes that, above all else, will bring him back.

"The fact that I'm fearless," Winston says. "The fact that no matter what the score is, no matter what the situation is, I'm always expecting to win. I'm always going into a game—no matter what happens—I still believe. Until that clock hits four zeroes and we can't snap the ball again, I believe we can win the football game. And that confidence is going to always stay with me. That's just how I'm wired.

"My entire life, I've been a winner. Little League football. Middle school. High school. College. Obviously, the NFL is a little more difficult. But I've been a winner. I don't want to be viewed as a loser. It's going to come. It's going to happen. This is something I've been fighting for my entire life. Building up to this.

"If people think I'm just going to lay down and give up because of a few losing seasons, that's never going to be the case."

My entire life, I've been a winner. Little League football. Middle school. High school. College. Obviously, the NFL is a little more difficult. But I've been a winner. I don't want to be viewed as a loser. It's going to come. — Jameis Winston

In his mind, he can't lose. Not with his dad's "three rules of football" still ringing in his head to this day: Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Not with everything he's doing this offseason. Not with how clear his mind is.

Winston promises this: "It's not over for me."

"I'm 26," he says. "There's people talking about me like I'm an old, washed-up quarterback. Like I'm 40 years old! I've got so much life. I've got so much energy, man."

He repeats it once more.

"This is not over for me."

Whenever Winston does take the field again, you may not recognize him. He had a scope done on his knee Jan. 17 to repair a torn meniscus, the doctor told him the quickest way to recover was by eating better and—easy decision—he went vegan Jan. 18.

"My body just transformed," he says.

By early May, Winston had dropped from 242 to 225 pounds.

He'll sneak in a cheat meal here and there, but Sunday through Friday? Winston's diet is downright TB12-esque. There's nothing but plants and fruit as he details one typical day's meals with Food Network zest. He loves kale, green beans, collard greens and creamed corn. One go-to meal is combining chopped-up sweet potatoes with plantains. And fruit, he's discovering, provides juuuust enough sweetness to satisfy his palate.

The first couple of weeks, Winston wasn't convinced about this whole vegan thing. He looked down and saw a gut still poking out. By the time he hit that third week, and then the fourth, he started seeing real changes. Any and all skepticism faded for good.

Now Winston is a convert. He's amazed at how a vegan lifestyle has led to wholesale changes.

Physical recovery sure helped, too. Last season was more painful than anyone realized.

In addition to the torn meniscus, Winston played through a broken thumb on his throwing hand the final three-and-a-half games, when he had 10 of his interceptions (but also another 11 touchdowns). How bad was it? He needed to immobilize the thumb in a hard cast for an entire month. This wasn't an off hand either. "This is my throwing thumb," he says with emphasis. He can still remember all the Should I play? talks with Bucs medics, week to week, quarter to quarter. Yet even with star receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin lost to hamstring injuries, even with playoff hopes dead and a potential free-agency windfall looming and every logical reason to shut it down in late December, the choice for Winston was easy.

It's always been easy.

The choice is central to his football mentality.

"No injury, unless it's something really, really serious, is going to keep me from going on the field," he says. "Because I've got my teammates out there. They're depending on me. The whole city of Tampa was depending on me."

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 25: Quarterback Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers high fives fans after the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Raymond James Stadium on November 25, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the San Fr
Will Vragovic/Getty Images

He thought back to an old saying at Florida State: "Love is the reason for the fight." The blood, the sweat, the tears he and his teammates shed from July right on through January make the pain they suffer worth it. This is why Winston plays, why he also missed only three games when he sprained the AC joint in his right shoulder back in 2017. Nothing matters more to him than gaining sincere love in his locker room, from the practice squad rookie nobody knows to a player making $100 million.

Gain this love, he says, and you realize that love is for football itself. The game.

That love binds 11 players together striving for the same thing.

"So I take that approach. It's bigger than me," he says. "No matter what I'm dealing with, no matter what I'm going through, I'm out here to serve these guys who are out here putting their life on the line, too."

And then, poof, it was over. The Buccaneers moved on.

Winston wouldn't be gritting through any injury for any Bucs teammate any longer.

Of course, part of him understands Tampa Bay's decision. He can live with telling his son they had to leave Tampa Bay because Tom Brady, the greatest ever, was replacing him. He wanted a Patriots No. 12 jersey himself as a kid.

But mock that "Eat a W" speech all you want. Winston's raw passion is real. He believed in his group in Tampa—believed they were building a Super Bowl winner. So when that belief wasn't reciprocated? That stings. He thought about his teammates. The fact he'd never throw to Evans again or bleed on Sundays with guys like Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen and Ndamukong Suh...and Winston keeps listing off names because there are so many teammates he genuinely enjoyed playing through those injuries for.

Two days. It took a solid two days to mentally reset and move on when the Bucs moved on.

"I thought to myself, 'Hey, man, I love the city of Tampa Bay, and I really want to be here. This is where I want to be,'" Winston says. "I've done so much in this community. This community has received me well. When I first got here, I had to overcome so much. I'm going to work my tail off to be there in this city. Two days. Just because I'm human."

Then, he was fine.

It hit Winston: The Bucs don't want me? Fine. They don't want me. And he went to work fixing the reason he wasn't wanted.

The absolute worst thing Winston could do is stick his fingers in his ears and ignore the noise. No, he does not agree with everyone going on and on about those 30 picks, pointing out that he hadn't cracked the 20s his four other pro seasons. He declares last year an "anomaly."

He defends his fearlessness on the field. It's who he is. He views gunslinging as his No. 1 strength. So, no, he cannot do a 180, cannot play afraid of his own shadow. But he also cannot ignore the reality that the lows are as low as the highs are high. He knows he must learn how to control the game.

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 13: Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reacts after throwing his second interception of the first half against the Tennessee Titans at Raymond James Stadium on September 13, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Ge
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Change is needed.

Self-reflection is needed.

"I know, like, 'Hey Jameis, you can't go out there and throw the ball to the other team,'" he says. "But how do I apply that? How do I insert that into my training? How do I make that something that's habitual?

"In every criticism, there's some type of truth. In every critic, there's some type of truth. So I'm going to take the little truth in this negative outlook on my career—my season last year—and work on it. Instead of me getting mad at the world, I'm like, 'OK, I'm going to work on this.' I'm going to come up with a way that I can eliminate these things."

Trimming a layer of fat should make him more nimble in the pocket. Winston now, theoretically, can dip and dodge away from pressure to buy himself an (extremely valuable) extra split-second before the ball leaves his hand to make more conscious decisions. Lasik should help, too. Up to this point, he's battled nearsightedness and astigmatism. The field won't be as blurry now.

The combination of it all makes this the most fascinating quarterback case study of this era.

Winston must strike a balance that may or may not exist.

"Sometimes, your biggest strength can be your biggest weakness," he says. "I'm an attacker. I'm trying to attack consistently. I'm trying to attack every time I play. I want you to feel my presence every time I'm in the game. But at the same time, I'm the quarterback. I have the ball. I'm the one who says this goes here and that goes there. I am the answer.

"So learning how to manage that attack mode and how to manage that not-attack mode is the balance. I'm trying to find that perfect balance."

He isn't just regurgitating talking points. He's meticulously rewiring his quarterback brain, using very specific workout routines to find that balance and achieve an everyday mentality of "making great decisions."

Winston runs through his process: Practicing in his backyard with his trainers, he'll first reach maximum exhaustion. Then the moment he does—the moment he can best simulate being tired as hell in a game—he'll move into a drill designed to target that decision-making. Winston gives an example: He'll drop back with a trainer sending medicine balls at him at full speed, forcing him to scramble. At which point, he'll read "targets" set up at various routes downfield. "Targets," as in nets that will be left open or turned shut at the last second.

The point is to force Winston to "embrace the pain" and make a smart decision on the fly under duress.

"So if somebody's running after me at full speed, and both of those targets are closed, where is the only place I can throw the ball?" he says. "Out of bounds. Practicing throwing the ball away."

He already can feel the tide turning.

Recently, in this exact drill, Winston had set up nets at dig and flat routes—a go-to route combination in the NFL. He avoided the medicine balls, spun away from a "defender" (a trainer chasing him), rolled left and, with that defender barreling down, had to make that crucial split-second decision.

The flat route was covered, but the dig route? Wide open.

That dig was so, so tempting. Winston has flipped his torso around, on the run, and gripped and ripped so many times in his career. In 2019, he would've done it. Not anymore.

This time, Winston tucked the ball. Ran. Gained what would've been a yard. Maybe two.

"This was a maturity step for me," Winston says. "Just making those simple decisions—every day—it adds up. It adds up. Because in real life, when Aaron Donald is chasing me from the right and I'm scrambling to the left, and I have Michael Thomas coming in on a dig route but I can't really see the backside safety about to rob and pick off this dig, and I have Alvin Kamara in the flat but he's covered up, I might just have to throw that ball away or tuck it and run. Let's keep the ball in our possession and find another way to get it, to get the job done."

Avoiding a hypothetical turnover isn't exactly the type of clip players spam social media with this time of year to beef up their brands. But in Winston's world, you bet it's cause for celebration. And this is just one of, uh, many drills. You might've seen Winston swinging a stick like a baseball bat, too. 

B/R Gridiron @brgridiron

.@Jaboowins getting creative ♨️ https://t.co/UPSPzdJ9c0

There's a method to this madness. Rep to rep, day to day, week to week, Winston believes this all will seep into his subconscious.

He believes he will strike that balance.

"If I can make a great decision when I'm out here training with other people," Winston says, "when I'm tired, in this hot sun and it's a worldwide pandemic going on, well, I can make a great decision when I'm in the pocket playing for the New Orleans Saints."

He is currently the 55th-highest-paid quarterback in football, right behind recycled busts Geno Smith, Mike Glennon and (don't gag) Blaine Gabbert. And yet, it's impossible to tell. You'd never know a QB once daydreaming of a $100 million contract needed to settle for $1.1 million. Winston speaks with the jubilation of someone who just reset the whole damn market.

The reason why is the fit. Winston sees the Big Easy as the perfect spot to revive his career.

For starters, Sean Payton sincerely wanted him. Out of all the coaches he talked to, Payton was the most fired up about his game. About his strengths. Payton told him he already had a Hall of Famer (Drew Brees) and a dynamic backup (Taysom Hill), but there was room for him.

"That was the first coach in the free-agency period," Winston says, "that talked to me with that much confidence."

The chance to play Tampa Bay twice a year, he admits, "was a positive," but so was what so many others would deem a miserable consolation prize. Instead of seeing his smiling mug on a billboard somewhere—marketed as the face of a franchise—he is now competing for a No. 2 job. He is competing with Hill, who, by the way, just inked a contract with $16 million in guarantees. Thing is, Winston never heard the sad trombone wail. He sincerely cannot wait for this daily pressure, this new challenge. And of course, there's Brees. Winston couldn't put a price on having daily access to one of the greatest quarterbacking minds ever. This move is a career investment.

Not only will Brees retire No. 1 in practically every conceivable quarterback statistic…he's also had the same coach for 14 years.

That means a hell of a lot to someone who cycled through three in five years.

They go back, too. As Brees and Winston staged shootouts in the NFC South the past half-decade, they stayed in regular contact. Brees responded to Winston's texts and calls quicker than any other vet QB in the NFL. There was no triple-padlocking information in the name of competitiveness. Brees got back a day later at the absolute latest any time Winston had a question.

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 17: Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shakes hands with Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints after the game on November 17, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Will Vragovic/Getty Images)
Will Vragovic/Getty Images

Now, Winston will be in the same room. There's no need for him to search for workouts on Google anymore.

"It's different when you have someone who's a Hall of Fame quarterback that you can ask," Winston says. "He can say, 'Hey, bro, don't watch this stuff. Just watch me. Come work out with me. Let's work out together. Let's do this again. Let's watch film together.' Now he has no choice, because I'm going to be sitting in the room. I'm going to be with him every day."

Brees' strength—reading the field and reacting—is Winston's weakness. There's been next-to-no slippage in the 41-year-old's game. The past three seasons, Brees has thrown eight, five and four picks while also ranking No. 1 in completion percentage each time (and it's never been close). Brees' final marks of 72.0, 74.4 and 74.3 percent rank light-years ahead of his Hall of Fame contemporaries.

Aaron Rodgers? He was 21st last season (62.0).

Tom Brady? Way, way down at 27th (60.8).

If anyone can help reboot Winston's career, it's Brees, whose last 30 picks took 1,910 attempts, compared to Winston's 626. And whenever Brees does choose to ride off into the sunset, maybe Winston 2.0 is ready to be the successor.

Not that he is looking that far ahead.

This is the chance to take a deep breath behind a future Hall of Famer, which one current Hall of Famer believes can, no doubt, revitalize his career. Warren Moon, who has known Winston since his FSU days and has watched his pro career closely, makes it very clear: Jameis Winston can make every throw. Jameis Winston is not some bust of a No. 1 overall pick. The pressure has been on him since day one, and now…it's off. A "chance to exhale," as Moon calls it, is precisely what Winston needs.

Moon, too, calls the 30 picks an "anomaly." He cites receivers who admitted to running the wrong routes and Bruce Arians' high-risk offense. (Side note: Carson Palmer threw 22 picks his first year with Arians.) He believes the Lasik surgery is a way, way bigger turning point than anyone realizes. Moon remembers that one of his Vikings receivers, Jake Reed, got his vision fixed in the 1994 offseason, and his reception total skyrocketed from five to 85. So Moon can only imagine what this will do for a QB, for a player whose vision of the field is even more vital.

And, No. 1, Moon also anticipates a major Brees effect.

Seeing Brees dump the ball off to backs—in practice, in games, on film, over and over and over again—further helps that rewiring. Has an osmotic effect.

"When he was in Tampa Bay," Moon says, "I don't think he really had anybody like that because he was 'the guy.' Now he's not going to be the main guy. He can sit back and just kind of take it in and be a sponge with all this new information he's going to be getting. Because he's only 26 years old. He has a lot of time left to play the game.

"He doesn't have to make every throw. Sometimes, I think Jameis feels like he can or has to make every throw down the field. And that gets him in trouble a lot. Once he learns that he doesn't have to make every throw down the field, that he can throw the ball away or dump the ball off, he'll really start to make that change of being a more efficient quarterback."

Moon adds that one audition is all it'll take. One mini-stretch of proving to teams he has put the diet, the drills, the conversations with Brees all to use. Teddy Bridgewater did, and Teddy Bridgewater was paid.

"He's going to do well being in that environment," Moon says. "The guy can play football. He knows how to play the game. He just needs to make one major adjustment to his game, which is taking care of the football."

So what will we see?

What will the New Jameis Winston, whenever its grand reveal happens, look like?

He isn't losing one iota of bravado. This offseason was humbling, but this offseason has not shaken his confidence at all. Everything you see on Instagram, he insists, is "100 percent Jameis." He does not plan on completely changing who he is as a player.

"I'm 100 percent Jameis Winston, no matter what jersey number I'm wearing," Winston says. "I'm going to live being Jameis Winston, and I'm going to die being Jameis Winston."

He's always been the pied piper, the one who'll fight through any injury, any mistake for his teammates. That's always been his instinct—to lead.

Now, he can't. Not yet, anyway.

And that's OK. He even stuck around Tampa into May and dismisses any thirst for sweet revenge. A week prior to this chat with B/R, he helped feed 1,000-plus families in the city because part of him will always feel indebted to the community.

Soon enough, it's off to New Orleans. And once he's there, who knows when we'll see Jameis Winston, the player, again?

Whenever that time comes, here is what he says you'll see:

"Expect to see the national championship, Rookie of the Year, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback being the best version of himself, taking care of the football, bombing the ball down the field, throwing touchdown after touchdown, leading the pack and being cool as the other side of the pillow."

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 01: Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates a touchdown during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on December 01, 2019 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Imag
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Until then, opinions all around Jameis Winston will remain split. There's no consensus on his talent. His career, legitimately, could juke one direction or the other. Winston himself doesn't break cadence.

He's not worried a bit.

He knows, for certain, he'll be back.

"I'm 100 percent confident that I will be the quarterback I want to be for the remainder of my career."


Editor's note: Interviews for this piece were conducted before Drew Brees’ statement about kneeling during the national anthem and his subsequent apology. Winston could not be reached to comment on that.

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.