FORT WORTH, Texas — Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints starting quarterback, had a tight schedule to keep.
His team — his team — had just four days until its season opener against the Green Bay Packers. Game preparation is already an exhaustive process for this organization and this quarterback under normal circumstances, and things were not normal. Eleven days earlier, the players, staff and their families hurriedly packed to catch a plane bound for Texas as Hurricane Ida barreled toward the Louisiana coastline.
Winston settled into a chair in the gray, windowless, concrete bowels of Amon G. Carter Stadium — Texas Christian University’s home stadium — for a short interview. He had five minutes to talk because he had a game to prepare for under strained circumstances, and he had a bus to catch back to the hotel room he’d called home for the past 11 nights.
How exactly does one distill the past 16 months of Winston’s life into five minutes? There’s so much ground to cover: The franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall letting him walk without a contract offer; dozens of other NFL franchises deciding he was not worth pursuing; his decision to choose a place with the understanding that he’d sit on the bench and earn bottom-of-the-barrel salary; all the work and relationship-building behind the scenes that vaulted him back into this golden opportunity to follow a legend.
Winston leaned forward in his chair, easing his 6-foot-4 frame into a relaxed slouch, and he fielded this broad question. His eyes never wavered as he spoke, zeroing in on the person who asked the question. He didn’t hesitate or stumble over an answer. He was locked in, prepared. He knew exactly what got him through this journey.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned about myself is my faith. My faith in God and His plan for me is so solid no matter what happens,” Winston said. “Sometimes that faith can be a lot, but nothing’s wrong with having too much faith. I know that His plan for me is going to be the best plan.
“Sometimes I don’t get necessarily what I want, but I know whatever God has planned for me is the best.”
This is the important takeaway. Spend a day or a few minutes with him, understand that he knows he has not been perfect, and neither has his path. But he trusts that this path is the one he was meant to traverse, and he trusts in himself to do it.
You don’t have to try too hard to find an opinion about Winston. They’re everywhere, because he is a lightning rod for takes. He is talented, he is careless. He is charismatic, he is immature. He is authentic, he is calculating.
But spend time with him — even five minutes in a cramped photographer’s work room. Cut through the takes and see him in the flesh. See the way he is totally invested in what he is doing in a given moment, the intensity and conviction when there are no cameras and no windows to the rest of the world. There you can see what the Saints saw when they made Jameis Winston their chosen one.
He is where he wanted to be at the end of those 16 months because he always believed he would be. His work and his faith did not allow that belief to falter when the circumstances and outside voices told him otherwise. He is here because he has been preparing for this his whole life, because the lessons he’s learned these past 16 months have only strengthened his preparation for this moment.
“This ain’t an a-ha moment for him,” said his longtime trainer, Otis Leverette. “So to follow a legend, who better than Jameis Winston to follow a legend?”
Jameis Winston spoke to the media for the first time on Tuesday after agreeing to a deal to re-sign with the Saints.
‘Man in the mirror’
Let’s address the elephant in the room, the reason Winston was available to the Saints at the low, low price of $1.1 million last April. For all the individual brilliance in Winston’s final year in Tampa — the NFL-best 5,109 passing yards, the career-best 33 passing touchdowns — the thing that stuck with Winston was that glaring number in the interception’s column.
Thirty interceptions. Nine more than any other quarterback that year. If it had been 25 or 26, maybe it would have been perceived differently. Eli Manning threw 27 picks in 2013, and he kept his starting job for another five seasons. Hall of Famer Brett Favre threw 29 of them with the Packers in 2005, then made three consecutive Pro Bowls and led two different teams to the NFC Championship game between 2007-09.
But Winston made the mistake of hitting 30, a plateau that had rarely been reached in NFL history. He was the first person to cross the 30-interception threshold in more than 30 years, the last being Vinny Testaverde in 1988 — ironically, also a former No. 1 draft pick of the Buccaneers.
NFL passing attacks completely changed in those three decades, championing ruthless efficiency. In 2019, Winston threw two more interceptions than the combined total of Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson.
So, the hot-take machine fired up. Thirty interceptions meant Winston was not capable of being a championship-level quarterback. He is too willing to take risks and therefore not worthy. It didn’t matter if four Hall of Famers also have a 30-interception season on their résumés (Fran Tarkenton, George Blanda, Sid Luckman and Ken Stabler), or that Testaverde played 19 NFL seasons after his 35-interception campaign, making two Pro Bowls.
And Winston was looking for a new job at the precise time that awful, round number said he was damaged goods.
Winston’s camp is therefore wary when the topic is brought up, believing the talking head sports culture irreparably twisted Winston’s career narrative. But, fair or not, the year Winston threw 30 picks is woven into the fabric of his story, and it will be until he proves it’s a non-issue, like Manning and Favre and Testaverde before him.
So, the first step is to take accountability.
During an appearance on the “Huddle and Flow” podcast this spring with NFL Network reporters Jim Trotter and Steve Wyche, Winston said he could count the number of free-agency suitors he had “on three fingers.” The Saints, he said, were the only team to make a legitimate offer that was not dependent on what happened in the NFL draft.
He was asked on the podcast if he was angry at the way that process unfolded, that his larger body of work — five years as an NFL starting quarterback, including three years with 4,000-plus yards passing, under three different head coaches in Tampa Bay — was lost in the never-ending talk of 30 interceptions.
“I was angrier at myself for basically putting myself in this situation,” Winston said. “I know that I can play quarterback at a high level. I just felt like (2019) was such an anomaly.”
Leverette has seen this sense of personal responsibility in Winston since he first started working with him, when Winston was 14. Those in Winston’s orbit insist it comes from his father, Antonor. It’s a trait Leverette seeks out in the quarterbacks he trains.
“I’m not looking at arm talent; I’m not looking at footwork; I’m not looking at how big, or tall, or how fast they run until I figure out one thing: Are you willing to serve, and are you willing to hold yourself to an ungodly level of accountability?” Leverette said. “If you’re not, then you’re probably not going to be good at this position. I’m sorry. I don’t care if you can throw the ball 80 yards on the run.”
So, Winston threw 30 interceptions the last time he was a starting quarterback. Got it. Accept the role you played in it, learn from it and move on.
And because moving on for Winston meant landing with the Saints, he learned extensively. He had a front-row seat to Drew Brees’ process.
At one point in Brees’ career, he too had issues with interceptions. During one six-year span while he was putting up otherwise insane numbers, Brees averaged 17 interceptions per season.
But by the time Winston became Brees’ teammate, Brees was arguably the NFL’s best caretaker of the football. In his final four seasons, Brees attempted 1,793 passes. Just 23 of them were intercepted.