ATLANTA -- So who to pick? Cam Newton won the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award last season, and Drew Brees is a Super Bowl winner. Matt Ryan has done neither, but according to Pro Football Reference, he ranks among the Top 20 quarterbacks since 1960 in fourth-quarter comebacks.
Well, maybe we should pick the other guy. In an NFC South dominated by significant quarterbacks, Jameis Winston is already spending his sophomore season threatening to become the elite of the elite. Actually, he was more impressive than that for his Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday in the Georgia Dome during their 31-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
Yeah, it's one game.
But what a game.
All you need to know is that, after Austin Seferian-Jenkins followed Winston's command in the huddle to race like crazy toward the back of the end zone early during the third quarter, the Bucs tight end used every bit of his 6-foot-5 frame to catch a slightly long pass of 30 yards while diving with his back toward the artificial surface
In the aftermath, everybody who huddled around Seferian-Jenkins wanted to relive the play, and they wished to know what he was seeing, what he was feeling and what he was thinking during the whole thing, but he shrugged.
"We have a great quarterback, so that sh*t is easy," said Seferian-Jenkins, bursting into a smile to match those of others in the Bucs locker room.
For one, Tampa Bay grabbed a season-opening victory on the road against a division foe, and they did so for Dirk Koetter, the first-year NFL head coach, who recently was the offensive coordinator for the Falcons. In addition, Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith took the Falcons to more victories than anybody in their history, and he had them playing in the NFC Championship Game during one of his four trips to the playoffs. He was whacked two years ago by the Falcons. So the Bucs also were giddy for Smith, and they were joyful over his defense that did enough inside the final two minutes to keep Ryan from adding to his comeback legacy.
The Bucs hugged Winston the most, though. Such things happen when you have somebody in your locker room who did just about everything well regarding NFL quarterbacking. Along the way to a passer rating of 122.6, he completed 23 of his 33 passes for 281 yards and four touchdowns. Each of those TD drives involved 75 or more yards. He wasn't sacked, but Falcons defenders kept trying. Even so, they were often frustrated by his ability to shuffle his 6-4 and 231 pounds out of danger in the nick of time. He showed a killer's instinct, too, because he took his team from a 13-10 deficit with barely a minute left in the first half to 21 unanswered points through the end of the third quarter.
That was all good, but Koetter is also a quarterback connoisseur, so he had his own favorite moment from Winston in this one.
"It was more the end of the second quarter when he stood in there and took some shots," Koetter said. "That's the part of Jameis that you don't get to see until its live football. He will stand in there and fight to keep it flush. He's not going to bail out."
No, Winston isn't, because he has the guts of a linebacker behind center, but get this: He was awful in the first quarter. He overthrew two receivers for potential touchdown passes, and he fired a pass into double coverage that became more than just an interception. It turned into a catalyst for the Falcons to break a 3-3 tie on the first of two TD passes from Ryan.
The thing is, Winston has this knack for turning adversity into triumph.
"I think it's just that I have tremendous faith in my teammates who help me get through [tough times]," said Winston, who uttered similar words at Florida State, where he was 26-1 as a starter. It was enough to help the Seminoles win a national championship, and he captured Heisman Trophy honors. To the chagrin of nobody with the Bucs, he has brought some of his rah-rah spirit from college to the pros, and he showed us much at the start of the fourth quarter when he roamed the sidelines urging his teammates to stay focused.
"We always talk about how love is a reason to fight, and I love this game so much," Winston said, always with passion in his voice. "I just don't want to let my guys down. So you've got to bounce back. The quarterback has to have that mentality. Nothing can faze me. It doesn't matter if I throw three picks in the first quarter, which is what I did against Florida [while at FSU]. You've got to bounce back."
This isn't to say Winston has returned all the way from his off-the-field issues that dominated much of his Florida State days. He never was charged by law enforcement agencies or suffered any kind of discipline from the university over the sexual assault accusations of a female student who was enrolled at FSU at the time. Even so, that controversy became as attached to Winston as his brilliant right arm, and it lasted through the Bucs ignoring critics by making him the No. 1 pick overall of the 2015 NFL draft.
Soon afterward, Winston suffered his initial dose of adversity on a pro football field. His first throw was returned for a touchdown. The same thing happened to Brett Favre, and you know how his career ended. Winston's was just beginning, but he recovered enough during his rookie NFL season to fire a league rookie-tying record of five touchdown passes against the Philadelphia Eagles. He eventually set a slew of rookie quarterback records for the Bucs, and he reached the Pro Bowl after somebody named Tom Brady decided not to go.
At this rate, Winston will have plenty of more Pro Bowls in store.
"There was a huge maturity jump last season for Jameis, and you could see it from the beginning of the season to the end, and even through a whole offseason with all of the guys," said Bucs center Joe Hawley. "He's grown into his own, and he's become a leader of this team. Football-wise, he's just so smart. He wants to be the best, and he approaches everyday like he wants to be the best."
So far, so great.