Did Sean Payton break Jameis Winston by fixing Jameis Winston?

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If I’d gone back before the season started and predicted Jameis Winston would exit Week 3 with seven touchdown passes against two interceptions and a 2-1 record, I probably would’ve drawn a lot of skepticism. But here we are.

Sean Payton has coached Winston into correcting some of the mistakes that plagued his NFL career so far. He hasn’t fumbled once in three games after doing so 50 times in his first 72 games. He’s thrown two interceptions on 63 pass attempts, a rate of 3.2% — his lowest interception rate since 2017, and the third-best of his pro career. He’s still put the ball in danger more often than you’d like, but he’s making tangible progress.

But at what cost? Winston has already taken 7 sacks, putting him on track for the second-most sacks of his career. He’s shown a willingness to take a sack and shield the ball with both hands on his way to the turf when nothing is open downfield, which is smart. Trying to force something and risk a turnover is what got him bounced out of Tampa Bay.

Here’s the bad news. This strategy has worked, for the most part, except in high-leverage situations when under pressure. His miraculous touchdown pass to Marquez Callaway could have just as easily been an interception had a defensive back been in better position. When things break down around him and he’s out of options, Winston is still throwing recklessly.

Those bad habits are never fully going away. It’s been a part of his DNA dating back to Florida State’s run in the College Football Playoff way back when. He’s always going to have bad snaps where he just heaves the ball as high and far as he can, praying that Mike Evans or Deonte Harris or Kelvin Benjamin is somewhere down there to bail him out.

What’s concerning is that Payton’s no-nonsense coaching is starting to bleed into Winston’s more routine plays. As observed by Pro Football Focus’ Seth Galina, Winston wasn’t just taking a sack when he had to. He was passing up opportunities to make a play with receivers running open downfield:

This is similar to what we saw from Teddy Bridgewater during his extended stint as a starter in 2019, and again from Taysom Hill in 2020 — drawing the ire of fans for not pulling the trigger when the look was there. It’s a byproduct of the unreal standards Drew Brees set over so many years in New Orleans, setting impossible expectations for his successors. Like the fans, Payton has grown used to turnover-free football. But when Brees was able to protect the ball while also slicing up defenses to find the open man, the quarterbacks following after him are falling short. They’re hesitating to take the shot for worry of something going bad.

That’s a far cry from the Winston we’ve seen before, who was fearless to a fault. Credit to him for being receptive to coaching, but it might have gone too far. He’s got to hang in there and make a play when it’s available. You can always take a sack and live to try another down, but you can only do that three times before you’ve got to punt.

Things should look different in just a few weeks once receivers Tre’Quan Smith and Michael Thomas return from their injuries to liven up the offense. That gives Winston some more proven options to work with and opens up Payton’s playbook. As Brees himself pointed out Sunday night, Winston is new to this offense. So are most of his supporting cast. Once more experienced players get in the mix we should see the whole unit’s confidence take a boost and its efficiency rise with it.

Hopefully we’ll get to see more of the big arm and vertical passing element that was hyped up all summer. If Winston continues to leave big-play opportunities untouched, we’ve got something to worry about.

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