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Can Jameis Winston steal the 2021 NFL MVP?

Crazier things have happened in the NFL.

Green Bay Packers v New Orleans Saints Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

When Jameis Winston first signed with the New Orleans Saints in the 2020 offseason, the national media wrote Winston off as player left with no other suitor of interest in free agency, forced to take a backup role to a future Hall of Famer. Maybe they were right.

In any event, Winston acknowledged he needed to put his “ego aside” and make the decision that was best for his long-term football future. The Florida State alumnus said at the time that coming to New Orleans to learn under Sean Payton and Drew Brees would be like receiving a “Harvard education” in how to be an NFL quarterback.

I previously had the opportunity to speak with Winston and ask him if he felt he got his tuition dollar’s worth out of that “Harvard education,” and he emphatically explained that he didn’t feel like he had been “short-changed at all.

But like with any form of education, you can sit in the classroom all day long and hear what the teacher is telling you, but can you put it into practice? When it comes time to take the test, will you pass with flying colors, or will you fail despite your teacher’s best efforts?

Winston’s first test came Sunday afternoon against the Green Bay Packers.

Let’s set up the play. The Saints are up 10-0 over the reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, late in the first quarter. It’s 1st-and-10 at the Green Bay 37.

This is a modified “Y-Leak” concept where the play appears likely designed to go to Taysom Hill. Taysom starts at the top of the formation and then uses pre-snap motion to become a blocker at the bottom of the offensive line. Jameis is supposed to fake a hand-off to Alvin Kamara and then fake a bootleg to the right where crossing receivers should be coming across the field. The fullback in this formation is also supposed to move right, faking the wide block for the bootleg.

Instead of blocking for the bootleg, Taysom is supposed to disengage from his block and run a wheel route up along the top of the screen. It would look something like this, with Taysom using pre-snap motion to get to the yellow “X” below, engage the defensive line during the yellow squiggles, and then run the wheel route.

Adam Trautman, lined up as a receiver at the top of the screen, and Marquez Callaway, the Saints receiver at the bottom of the screen, are both running the two crossing routes to the opposite side of the field as Taysom’s wheel. The thought here is the two crossing routes by Trautman and Callaway would help free up space for Taysom on the other side of the field as the Packers defense would all be shifting away from Taysom.

New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara operates as Jameis’s check-down option, where he is supposed to stay close to the line of scrimmage and present a safety net of sorts if there isn’t a deep shot elsewhere. However, the play is designed in a way to give Taysom Hill a solid chance at catching an easy pass from Jameis Winston for a big gain.

That’s what is supposed to happen.

Due to no fault of his own, Taysom takes a bit longer to get out of his block than anticipated. By the time Jameis fakes the hand-off to Kamara and completes the rest of his drop back, Taysom had momentarily caused a minor traffic jam with two Packers lined up at the line of scrimmage, #47 linebacker Chauncey Rivers and #93 defensive lineman T.J. Slaton.

When Jameis looks up to where Taysom is supposed to be, he isn’t there yet. Instead of panicking, Jameis looks down the field from left to right, first to Adam Trautman and then to Marquez Callaway, hoping either were able to get separation on their routes. They weren’t.

Jameis then looks to his check-down option in Alvin Kamara. Also covered.

Then we go back to Taysom Hill’s wheel route. By this point, Packers linebacker Krys Barnes has the play diagnosed and has recovered to catch up to Taysom Hill. Also covered.

Finally, Jameis looks at Alvin Kamara one more time before deciding to launch the ball out of bounds.

Now that we’ve discussed the play in-depth, let’s watch it in action.

After the game, Jameis told Peter King of NBC Sports that this same play was run by the starting offense during practice. On the play in practice, Winstead said, “I was trying to make a play, and I threw it, and [Saints linebacker] Kaden Elliss intercepted it. So I just said to myself, If we call that play in the game this week, and it’s not there, I’m gonna throw it so high out of bounds that Shaq can’t pick it off. And that’s what I did.”

Watch Jameis’s helmet. Watch him track the routes discussed above, not panic, and then make the smart decision to throw the ball out of bounds instead of forcing the ball to Trautman, Callaway, or Hill.

This is the kind of decision Jameis does not make as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You can almost see the wheels turning in his head as the play starts to break down. He wants to sling it down the field. He considers for a brief moment launching the ball to Callaway deep down the right side of the field. If he had, the safety on top of the route likely would have caught what would have been one of Jameis’s 30 interceptions in 2019. In 2019, Jameis would have made the wrong decision on this play and tried forcing the ball down field.

When we talked with Jameis before the 2021 season started, he discussed his biggest takeaway from his time under Drew Brees. Without hesitation, he emphasized the need to limit turnovers. Winston explained that what he learned from Drew Brees was to “make the right decision” regardless of the outcome. If it means taking a sack, take a sack. If it means throwing the ball away, throw the ball away. Live to fight another play.

And that’s exactly what he did here.

Not all throw-aways are created equal. Sometimes, the quarterback throws the ball away instead of hitting an open receiver because he lacked the confidence to make the throw. As you could see from the breakdown above, that wasn’t what happened on this play. Instead of forcing the ball down field and possibly turning the ball over to Aaron Rodgers and losing all of the momentum the Saints had just built, Jameis threw the ball away to set up 2nd-and-10. He lived to fight another play and let the drive continue. The conclusion of the drive? A touchdown pass to tight end Juwan Johnson, extending the Saints lead to 17-0.

So that brings us to the original question posed: Can Jameis Winston win the 2021 Most Valuable Player award?

There have only been eight NFL seasons where at least one quarterback threw for over 5,000 yards. In five of those eight, a 5,000-yard passer won either MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, or Comeback Player of the Year. The other three seasons include two from Drew Brees in 2012 and 2016 when the Saints finished with a 7-9 record each year, and Jameis Winston in 2019, when he led the league in interceptions by throwing a whopping thirty.

Don’t get this twisted: I don’t think Jameis Winston will pass for over 5,000 yards in 2021 (or rather the 17-game equivalent now that the NFL season expanded to include an additional regular season game). But Jameis has clearly shown he has the arm talent to do so. The question was always going to be whether he could cut down on his interceptions. If he could do that, while maintaining elite production, then he has a chance to do something Drew Brees was never able to do in his Hall of Fame career: win an NFL Most Valuable Player award.

Jameis Winston went to school for a year under Drew Brees and Sean Payton to learn to be an elite NFL quarterback. When it came time to take his first exam, he received top marks. In fact, his one-game performance single-handedly improved his odds to win the 2021 MVP. Our good friends at Sports Betting Dime keep up with real-time betting odds across the NFL.

On September 8th, before the Week 1 game against the Packers, Winston’s odds to win the 2021 MVP were over +4,000. Today, they have jumped to +2,500.

Patrick Mahomes is still the overwhelming favorite to win MVP at +550 odds. But if Jameis can show consistent growth and maturity in his decision-making with the football in his hands even when a play breaks down, then Jameis Winston’s odds to win MVP could continue to improve. He simply needs to focus on making the “right” decision regardless of the outcome like his teacher, Drew Brees, taught him.

Did Jameis Winston steal those crab legs while a member of the Florida State Seminoles? I don’t think so, but the world may never know. However, he very well could “steal” the 2021 NFL MVP if Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the NFL don’t watch out.

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