Jameis Winston begins his second act with a splash, thrashing Packers

How’s this for weird: There was a quarterback in Sunday’s Packers-Saints game running a controlled, high-scoring offense, tossing moon-shot touchdowns and enjoying controversial bail-out calls from the refs … and it wasn’t Aaron Rodgers.

There was a quarterback in the same game who was making off-balance, ill-advised throws that turned into interceptions before getting benched when the game was out of reach … and it wasn’t Jameis Winston.

Packers-Saints was already a strange matchup given that it took place in Jacksonville, a result of Hurricane Ida devastating the Saints’ game options. Even more shocking: the fact that Winston, in his debut as the Saints’ starting quarterback, transformed into Aaron Rodgers … right in front of Rodgers.

Yes, Jameis Winston — he of the heavily discounted crab legs, he of the ill-advised tabletop public declarations, he of the peculiar pregame motivational speeches, he of the interceptions by the armload — that Jameis Winston thoroughly outplayed reigning MVP Rodgers on Sunday, throwing five touchdowns and leading New Orleans to a stunning 38-3 victory.

How impressive was Winston’s performance? His BetMGM odds to win the MVP jumped from +5000 to +3500 during the game. It’s a testament to a remarkable two-year turnaround for the former first overall draft pick.

The last time Winston started a game, back in 2019, he was sputtering his way through the end of his tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Beguiled by his skills, infuriated by his miscues, Tampa Bay delayed a stay-or-go decision on Winston as long as it possibly could, finally cutting ties with him after Winston completed a dubious 30-30 season — 33 touchdowns, 30 interceptions.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 12: Jameis Winston #2 of the New Orleans Saints warms up prior to the game against the Green Bay Packers at TIAA Bank Field on September 12, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
Jameis Winston won a preseason duel with Taysom Hill for the Saints' starting quarterback spot. He affirmed that victory with a sparkling Week 1 blowout of the Packers. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

All Tampa Bay did then was bring in a new QB and win a Super Bowl, which had to wound Winston’s ego. And he had plenty of time to contemplate his fate and future, warming a bench in New Orleans behind Drew Brees. He appeared in only four games and threw all of 11 passes last season, an add-on and an afterthought.

But a funny thing happened. Winston took full advantage of his unplanned internship. He immersed himself in the Saints culture, learning from Brees and head coach Sean Payton. He showed up to camp looking leaner, ready to fight for the starting job with Payton’s handpicked favorite Taysom Hill.

He shook off doubts, tuned out critics and won the starting job. And suddenly a Saints team most believed would flail in the post-Brees era looks like a playoff contender.

Granted, it’s one game of 17. But it’s one game in which the Saints dismantled a preseason Super Bowl favorite on all sides of the ball. The defense held Rodgers to a mere 133 yards, intercepting him twice and relegating him to the bench with 10 minutes left in the game. This marked Rodgers’ worst loss as a starter, which will surely lead to plenty of conversation in and around Green Bay given the quarterback’s tumultuous offseason.

No such issues will trouble New Orleans this week. Alvin Kamara’s legs kept the Packers from dropping back too far on Winston. The offensive line protected Winston well enough that he had time to make a sandwich in the backfield, and he delivered a game with a tepid stat line — 14 of 20 for 148 yards, 55 of which came on one pass — but with a sparkling scoreboard. Any time you throw for five touchdowns, you generally don’t need to worry too much about any other number.

Not only that, Winston got the kind of superstar call that's usually the dominion of Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes: a questionable roughing-the-passer flag late in the third quarter that nullified a potential Green Bay interception. Two plays later, Winston found Juwan Johnson in the end zone to go up 31-3, and that was effectively the end of Green Bay's flickering hopes.

Next week, New Orleans has a divisional matchup with Carolina, and after that, a trip up to Foxborough to play New England. A Saints-Patriots game that doesn’t feature either Brees or Tom Brady wouldn’t have figured to be a must-watch before Sunday. But Jameis Winston is, once again, officially in what-will-he-do-next territory … and for all the right reasons.


Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.