Why Jameis Time in New Orleans could be a 'beautiful thing'

The Saints have been banging on the Super Bowl door. With Drew Brees retired, Winston gets his shot at redemption this 2021 season. Which QB are we about to see?

The man loves football. He really, really loves football.

That’s no cliché. That’s the best way to describe Jameis Winston.

Few quarterbacks in the NFL wear their emotions on their sleeve quite like the “W”-eating, gunslingin’ Jameis Winston. Believe in him? Don’t believe in him? Absolutely no one can question the former No. 1 overall pick’s raw desire to win. The last time Winston was a starting quarterback, in 2019, he played through a torn meniscus and a broken thumb and didn’t think twice about it.

Those who know Winston best cannot say it enough: He doesn’t give a damn about the cameras, the marketing, the fame that inherently comes with his position. No, he’s still that kid from Alabama who simply loves commanding a huddle, who loves the ball in his hands deep into the fourth quarter.

And for the first in forever, Winston didn’t start last season.

He was a backup in New Orleans. He waited.

“When you love something, you’ll patiently wait for it,” says Otis Leverette, Winston’s mentor and trainer since ninth grade.

Now, he gets his chance at redemption. His chance to shine in 2021.

Somehow, this storyline managed to slip beneath the radar all summer. We haven’t seen Winston in a full calendar year and so much has changed around the NFL since his 33-30 epic. The best quarterbacks in football — Rodgers and Russell and Watson — tried forcing their way out of town. Rodgers, especially, hogged the headlines. We’ve all been obsessing over the contract status of another trio — Allen and Lamar and Baker. And of course, five quarterbacks were drafted in the top 15 last April… Trey Lance is going to be a star, too.

Yet the NFL’s all-time passing leader, Drew Brees, did retire this offseason.

This New Orleans Saints team has been banging on the Super Bowl door for a good half-decade, too. This Saints team is hungry as hell.

And the man replacing him? He’s hungry, too.

Technically, the Saints’ quarterback battle is still ongoing but here’s thinking Winston locks it up soon. That right arm is too tantalizing. Too powerful. The talent’s too undeniable. The Saints knew precisely what they were doing in grooming one of the league’s most polarizing quarterbacks for a season.

This marriage between team + quarterback should be talked about a hell of a lot more than it has been.

This should be a dominant storyline into this 2021 season.

Especially when one of the smartest offensive minds in football — Sean Payton — is overseeing it all.

“I’m excited to go out here and compete against my teammates every day,” Wintson said a week ago, with emotion. “All things aside I’m grateful to go out here and have the opportunity. I have embraced this process. I have been through the thick and thin as a quarterback in this league, man. I’m never taking a day again for granted.”

Jameis Time is coming once more, baby, and Jameis is not done yet. He made that much clear when nobody viewed him as a starter out of his wild 5,109-yard, 33-touchdown, 30-interception season. When we chatted then, Winston promised “This is Not over for me.”  He detailed exactly how much he was transforming his mind and body from the LASIK surgery to a totally new diet to totally new drills on the field — he was genuinely excited to hit reset. And the man who knows Winston better than Winston may know himself — Leverette, a former NFL D-Lineman — is certain this second act of Winston’s career is going to be special.

For the first time in his football life, Winston had a chance to personally reflect. To take a deep breath.

Now, he’ll lead a contender.

A contender full of personalities just like him.

“Jameis is in a great place,” says the ultra-energetic Leverette. “What makes Jameis whole in New Orleans is New Orleans has a whole lot of guys who love football and have that dog mentality and have fun and enjoy it. Jameis Winston with those type of guys takes him back to his Florida State days. That’s who he is. Through and through. It’s going to be a beautiful thing. You mark my word. They’re going to win a bunch of football games and shock a whole bunch of people. I believe in my guy but my guy surrounded by guys who are like him? I have no doubt they’ll win a lot of football games. It’s going to be a lot of fun in New Orleans.

“You’ll hear that “Choppa Style” playing over the loud speaker a lot this season.”

You’ve seen Leverette before. He’s the one training Winston in all of those videos that have gone viral the last two offseasons.

They’re always outside the box, to say the least:

Chuckling? That’s fine. Go ahead. Leverette doesn’t care.

As he puts, the NFL quarterback isn’t hit all offseason, all training camp, then all week leading up to each game. Then, it’s open season. Then, it’s essentially “everybody go kill him,” Leverette says. By whacking his boxing mitts at Winston — constantly — he’s preparing Winston for this reality on Sunday.

Other QB coaches aren’t doing this. Other QB coaches are breaking down footwork and such.

And here’s Leverette, a former NFL pass rusher, beating the hell out of Winston five days a week.

All of this hyper-intense training was a major part of the transformation, too.

“You have to callous the body and the brain to be able to stand in that pocket — in the most vulnerable and dangerous position in sports,” Leverette says. “And to be honest with you: A lot of people don’t train quarterbacks for the physicality of the game. And that’s something we’ve done for the last 14 years.

“This is intentional. We don’t stumble into this stuff. It’s serious. A lot of people might think we’re off our rocker. Because again, the quarterback position is one of those positions where everybody says, ‘Don’t touch that guy.’ Then, on Sundays, it’s ‘Go kill that guy.’ It would be like sending a Marine to war and not getting him prepared. He doesn’t know how to use a gun or nothing. And then, all of a sudden, it’s ‘Alright, man, let’s go to war now.’”

They’ve got a solid 15 to 20 go-to drills and, as Leverette sees it, this is a perfect “marriage” because he was trained to kill the QB himself in the pros. What better way to harden someone for Sundays? It gets physical, too. The 43-year-old even pulled his calf one workout.

Nothing calloused Winston more than that 2019 season in Tampa Bay, either.

Maybe you saw a gutsy baller willing to drive the ball downfield and make any throw. A fighter.

Maybe you saw an interception machine you don’t want near your offense.

Either way, the fact that Sean Payton is the coach who’s had Winston since has to encourage everyone. Brees is a legend. But Brees was also shot by the end of his NFL career. The Saints went 12-4 mostly in spite of the future Hall of Famer, letting him play out the string. Picture this as the opposite of what Green Bay did in drafting Jordan Love. New Orleans was apparently A-OK letting their star play as long as he wanted.

Risky business, to be sure. But Payton bridged the gap by taking a flier on Winston.

Now, it’s not crazy to suggest that the Saints are actually upgrading at quarterback. One source close to the team told Go Long that Winston’s ability to drive the ball downfield has everyone in the building ecstatic. While Taysom Hill is obviously more versatile — he’ll serve a role, he’ll drive defensive coordinators mad in some capacity — Winston has the far superior arm and should earn the No. 1 job. He’ll expand the playbook in a way Brees could not at the end.

That much was clear Thursday in camp when Winston bombed a ball to Easop Winston that traveled 60 yards in the air.

Quite a different sight than Brees’ heaves falling 10 yards short a year ago.

Payton, quietly, must be beaming.

So…

… about those picks.

The big question, obviously, is if a quarterback with 2,559 career pass attempts can rewire his decision-making. Winston and Leverette have implemented specific drills to address this, too, but only the live bullets will reveal the truth. There’s no simulating what he’ll see on Sundays and, you bet, the Buccaneers right there in the NFC South are licking their chops to blitz the hell out of the quarterback they know so well.

It’s also true that numbers can be misleading. Leverette is 100 percent correct to kindly cite the offensive system in Tampa Bay when it comes to those 30 picks.

Bruce Arians’ offense demands the QB throw it deep, often, without many checkdowns in place. It has a very all-or-nothing feel to it. Payton’s offense, meanwhile, is full of checkdowns for every possible situation. If something’s not available deep, there’s no need to force anything.

There’s a good chance Alvin Kamara will leak free underneath.

As Leverette says, it’s not like Winston ordered “decision-making” on Amazon this past season. Rather, he is much, much, much more in-sync with his coach.

“Instead of him going in with the mind-frame of, ‘Hey, I’m going to make these throws because I’m Jameis Winston,’ now, he goes in with the mind frame of ‘Coach, let’s put in something that’s going to be more tactful and makes a lot more sense in this situation,’” Leverette says. “Instead of going in trying to beat something that we may be able to beat because I have some talent to beat it but, again, the decisions vs. the outcomes. This may not be the best decision to throw these routes vs. these coverages consistently.”

Arians revised his offense on the fly with Tom Brady in 2020 and it paid off. Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl.

Leverette is now positive that simply being around two future Hall of Famers — Payton and Brees — will sharpen Winston’s decision-making.

He’s never had this close of a relationship with a coach in the pros before.

“Sean’s offense has a vast array of outs,” Leverette says. “It gets you out of a lot of stuff. Where Bruce’s offense, a lot of guys are downfield. And if the options are not open, it’s a tough situation. Especially the version that Jameis played in, there weren’t a whole lot of outs to it.

Payton, he adds, is a “savant.” A coach who can draw up a whole new set of plays “on a napkin” at a moment’s notice — that’s what made Brees so dangerous, too. This synergy. This ability to see the same thing out of a defense, in real time, and adjust.

Winston isn’t close to that level yet but Leverette is sure Winston is smart enough to keep up with the X’s and O’s.

“You’re constantly learning,” he adds. “But I think the base of what Sean is doing, Jameis has a great grasp of it. One of the most underrated parts of Jameis Winston that’s not discussed is, Jameis is extremely intelligent. From the day I met him, what made him different from most kids was not only his ability to absorb but his ability to apply what is absorbed immediately. So he’s not a guy who’s going to take a long, long time to digest a system.”

This is the first chance that Winston’s had to reflect on his career since he was a kid. From being the No. 1 QB in the nation out of high school, to winning the Heisman Trophy as a freshman at Florida State, to going No. 1 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, he’s never had a chance to sit. To think. To really put his own game under a microscope. Leverette describes this all as a “personal autopsy.”

“I think a lot of people are going to see that whole maturation,” Leverette says. “He’s just peeking around the corner to his prime.”

There are concerns around the quarterback position in New Orleans. The good news is that Payton and Michael Thomas are reportedly working on their issues. Possibly, everyone can sing kumbaya. Either way, a late surgery on the receiver’s ankle will keep Thomas sidelined to start the season.

The average fan isn’t going to recognize many names on this depth chart.

Leverette points back to high school, to only one of Winston’s receivers going on to play college ball. And to Florida State. His supporting cast then didn’t amount to much in the pros. And to Tampa Bay where receivers put up better numbers with Winston.

“Jameis is a receiver-maker,” he says. “This isn’t a matter of opinion. If you put receivers around him who are willing to work hard and learn the system, he will find a way to elevate their game. It’s kind of LeBron-esque that way. He will bring the talent up around him. That’s nothing new. I’m taking it all the way back to high school for you. You don’t see many national quarterbacks who don’t have top-tier receivers around them, even in high school. If you saw some of the guys playing around him, you’d say, ‘Wow. How did you become the No. 1 quarterback in the nation?’ He raised their level of play. That’s what the great ones do — LeBron, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson. Jameis has the same type of spirit where he raises their level. So I have all the faith in the world in him.

“God knows, it’d make it a lot easier with Michael Thomas. But I think he can hold it off until Mike gets there. That’s in his DNA. He’s shown that.”

Saints fans, no doubt, will accept a LeBron/Isiah/Magic-like force at quarterback.

Veteran wide receiver Chris Hogan signed with the Saints two weeks ago.

No stranger to what a Super Bowl offense looks, he likes what he sees in Winston.

“He is in here working hard, man. Tirelessly,” says Hogan. “He’s constantly communicating with guys. Both of those guys are working so hard to do everything the right way and to make plays and to be that guy. To command the huddle, to command the room. It’s been fun to work with them.”

Without question, any hype around Jameis Winston will be met with intense skepticism.

After all, he had five seasons to prove he was the answer in Tampa Bay. He cycled through multiple head coaches and coordinators and the scheme isn’t completely to blame for those 30 picks. Until people see it, they’ll worry 30-pick Jameis is in there somewhere…lurking… just waiting to crush their dreams. Leverette promises Winston sincerely doesn’t care about proving anyone wrong, that he only cares about proving people right.

Like the Saints. Like Payton. Like his family.

And Winston promises to be the same person throughout. Who’s that? A QB dancing from his butt during mundane stretches one day and laughing at his own expense when he, uh, misspeaks another day.

“I’ve always been optimistic,” the quarterback said recently. “Sometimes, I’ve been too optimistic. I’ve had to fine-tune to understand reality. You have your ups and downs but my gratitude was built from my father, my mother, I’ve had some very humble beginnings. When I come out here and I apply myself — every single day I work my butt off — it doesn’t matter how I speak. … I’m getting the job done. Regardless of how I speak, I’m trying to be the best man I can be.”

We’ve seen the mid-career renaissance in the NFL. And we’ve seen it out of quarterbacks with half the talent Winston possesses. Nobody should be surprised if Winston leads New Orleans back to the postseason for a fifth straight year.

Maybe he’s the answer to all of this franchise’s playoff heartbreak, too.

We’ll see his game soon enough.

His mind couldn’t be a better place.

“He’s prepared for this moment,” Leverette says. “I tell people all the time, when you squeeze a pineapple, pineapple juice comes out. Peach juice does not come out of a pineapple. So whatever’s inside of you is going to come out. If you’re been prepping and diligently working at something — in the dark — when you squeeze, what’s inside of you is going to come out. I don’t have any doubt. I believe in Jameis Winston’s preparation.

“If you’ve ever been around him and see how he preps, you know he’ll eventually find a way to win.”

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