Bucs' Jameis Winston passes first test in regaining starting QB job

TAMPA, Fla. -- In order for Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston to beat the San Francisco 49ers 27-9 Sunday – Step 1 in his quest to re-assert himself as the starting quarterback – he had to recognize that he couldn’t do it trying to be somebody else.

He had to stop chasing backup Ryan Fitzpatrick and his “FitzMagic” reel of highlights that electrified the league while he was home serving a three-game suspension.

“It’s definitely challenging when you have such a wave from a guy who’s doing such an amazing job and you’re trying to fit in. I think it was more trying to prove to everyone what I’m capable of,” said Winston, who was pulled in the second half of Week 8 and benched until head coach Dirk Koetter re-named him the starter this week.

“Any player, you’ve always got to be yourself. I’ve been playing this game since I was four years’ old. I think the most important thing is to be the best ‘me’ – never try to chase someone else, chase the man in the mirror and compete against him every day.”

It was the first time he didn’t turn the ball over in a season full of forced throws and sometimes reckless decisions. It was also his first game without throwing an interception since Dec. 24, 2017.

“I think Jameis was more settled in tonight. He knew where he was going with the ball. He made plays with his feet. It was like the old Jameis back there,” right tackle Demar Dotson said. “To me, he looked good back there, he was more poised back there.”

Winston completed 29 of 38 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 117.4. He looked far more like himself Sunday instead of the struggling quarterback who matched last season’s 11 interceptions in his first five games this year.

Winston said it had to do with a simplified approach.

“It’s easier to keep it simple when you’re very decisive,” Winston said. “Making quick decisions, getting the ball out of your hand, trying to execute on every single play and trying to understand that sometimes you’ve gotta check the ball down, sometimes you’ve gotta talk to yourself and say, ‘Hey, I’m just going to take this sack.’”

On Winston’s second possession, he hit tight end Cameron Brate on the run for a 6-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone, giving the Bucs their first lead in a game since Week 7. On that same drive, facing a third-and-8, Winston hit Mike Evans for a 42-yard completion.

On the Bucs’ first possession of the third quarter, Winston scrambled outside the pocket to connect with Evans on a 34-yard catch-and-run, setting up a 2-yard touchdown rush by running back Peyton Barber, making it 20-9.

Then in the fourth quarter, Winston was flushed from the pocket, rolled to his right and found a wide-open Adam Humphries, throwing across his body for a 26-yard touchdown to make put the Bucs ahead by three scores.

“That was not how we [drew] it up,” Humphries said with a chuckle. “It was just a good feel by Jameis, seeing me wide-open. I honestly didn’t think I was that wide-open. [He] just kind of stayed on the move, I kind of locked eyes with him, he found me and to be able to get into the end zone was awesome.”

There were a few missed opportunities too, like Winston floating a pass on a slant route to Mike Evans that slipped through the hands of a 49ers defender and was almost intercepted, and going just 3-for-8 when targeting DeSean Jackson.

But Winston made good decisions with the football, which was paramount, as Koetter has stated that those are the primary reasons he has switched quarterbacks three times this season.

“I’m not sure what it took, but he did it. That’s really all that matters,” Koetter said. “He played quarterback the way you really need to play it in the NFL.

“Jameis wasn’t perfect but he played a damn-good game. [I’m] proud of him. It’s been a difficult road. He sees what that looks like and he needs to consistently play like that to be one of the best.”

Even when the big plays weren’t there, or the Niners got penetration, Winston was able to check down to Humphries and running back Jacquizz Rodgers, and also tucked the ball to run for a 15-yard gain.

Turnovers have been the Achilles’ heel of the Bucs’ offense all season — Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s combined 23 picks are most in the NFL.

“That’s been what’s really hurt us, put us behind the sticks,” Humphries said. “Today [Winston] did a great job of protecting it, [he] scrambled when he needed to and found some guys downfield, made some great throws. It feels really good to come out of there with a clean game like that.”

Winston and the offense will face a much bigger test next week against the Carolina Panthers. Heading into Sunday’s game, the Niners had recorded just two interceptions on the season. The Panthers’ 11 interceptions this season are tied for fourth in the NFL.

The next six games are crucial for Winston, the Bucs’ first overall draft pick in 2015, whose career has, at times, been marred by turnovers. His $20.9 million fifth-year option is guaranteed for injury only until the first day of the new league year in March 2019. Winston is also vying for a contract extension.

In the franchise’s 43 seasons, the Bucs have never signed a quarterback to a second contract. Winston’s doing his best to be where his feet are and isn’t looking too far down the road. He’s taking the ‘simplified’ stuff pretty seriously.

“[I’m] just thinking about one play at a time, one game at a time, one completion at a time,” Winston said. “I don’t have anything to prove to anyone. What we’ve gotta do is win, and the easiest way to win is to keep everything simple and not beat yourself.”