Winston shows he should be Saints’ Week 1 starter

We might as well start with the disclaimers, none bigger than this:

When a veteran quarterback, who is a former No. 1 overall draft pick, faces an opponent coming off a 1-15 season with a first-time NFL head coach in his second preseason game, he should light that team up.

So, yes, maybe what Jameis Winston did Monday night to the Jacksonville Jaguars is exactly what any competent starting quarterback should do … but at least it signifies he might be a competent NFL starting quarterback.

Let’s not underplay that.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - AUGUST 23: Marquez Callaway #1 of the New Orleans Saints celebrates after a touchdown with Jameis Winston #2 of the New Orleans Saints against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Caesars Superdome on August 23, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Marquez Callaway (1) of the New Orleans Saints celebrates with Jameis Winston after scoring a touchdown on Monday night against Jacksonville. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Winston completed 9 of 10 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns to lead the New Orleans Saints to a 23-21 victory. The Saints scored on two of the three drives he was in for, as he firmly made the case he should be the Week 1 starter and replacement for franchise legend Drew Brees.

Along with being efficient, Winston connected on two deep touchdown throws to Marquez Callaway that were rare as Brees’ arm weakened in recent years. The first score went for 43 yards. The second for 27. Both traveled over 40 yards in the air.

“Completions are the only thing that matter,” Winston said. “[But] you can’t miss on those [deep] opportunities when they are there. Callaway made two huge plays when they were there.”

There is no need to fit Winston for a Hall of Fame jacket yet. His career is notorious for its spectacular plays, both good and bad. His last year as a starter, he managed to throw 33 touchdown passes … and 30 interceptions. That was 2019 in Tampa. The Bucs dumped him, brought in Tom Brady, and promptly won the Super Bowl.

The Saints scooped Winston, 27, up on a cheap deal ($1.1 million) with a simple plan: let him sit and learn from Brees during his likely final year playing.

If Winston could improve his consistency and accuracy, he might prove to be the kind of player his Heisman-Trophy winning career at Florida State suggested. If not, it was a low-risk gamble. The Saints saw enough of what they liked to re-sign him for the 2021 season at $12 million.

On Monday he started his first game of any kind in New Orleans and didn’t take it for granted.

“I was just thankful,” Winston said. “These opportunities don’t come often. A whole year without starting a football game … I’m blessed. I missed it. I missed going out there and leading the pack. That’s fun.”

Afterward, Winston took time to talk up his offensive line, his coaches and even God. He hailed Callaway, an undrafted rookie out of Tennessee who looks like a steal for the Saints as “ an incredible football player.”

He sounded like a veteran.

A preseason performance over the hapless Jags isn’t assuring anything, but it also isn’t discouraging the possibility Winston has improved from his Tampa days. If nothing else, it should end the debate over who head coach Sean Payton should start when the regular season gets here.

“I’ll keep you posted,” Payton said. “I don’t have a time frame. When we know what direction we are going, we will let you guys know.”

Payton may just want to follow the schedule, but it was clear he knew what he’d just seen.

“They pressured him on one play and he was able to quickly switch protection and get into a route for a touchdown,” Payton said.

Winston was 7-of-12 for 96 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the Saints’ preseason opener against Baltimore. That left the door open for Taysom Hill, a utility player Payton regularly used as a change-of-pace option at QB during the last few years of the Brees era.

Hill, however, struggled at times against the Jaguars. He went 11-of-20 for 138 yards and a touchdown. He took an intentional grounding penalty and generally saw the offense stall. He led a nice drive in the third quarter, including a fine fade throw for a touchdown, but there was little doubt who played better.

Winston is the preferable choice if for no other reason than it keeps Hill as a running, passing, occasionally gadget-play option. If Hill is playing full-time QB, then the Saints lose him at other positions. New Orleans has Trevor Siemian and rookie Ian Book as potential full-time backup QBs.

The question is if Jameis can keep it up. His entire NFL career has been a roller coaster — flashes of brilliance, then stretches of atrociousness.

Still, completing 9 out of 10 is pretty strong.

“We can be 100 percent and get better,” he noted.

Is this a new look QB, or just a terrible opponent?

The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. How much one way or the other might determine the Saints’ season, but it’s almost certainly going to begin with Jameis Winston as the starter.

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