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There quarterback Jameis Winston was on the ground again in the Superdome after a hit.
But this was a clean hit – unlike Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White’s illegal horse collar tackle last Halloween that made Winston plant awkwardly on his left leg and fall, ripping the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. That finished his season for the New Orleans Saints.
Winston was hit on that same knee Friday night in the opening minutes of the first quarter of the Saints’ 27-10 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, but it was no harm, no foul this time. He bounced up as most in the dome breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m happy it happened, I guess,” Winston said. “It’s just part of the game. Like I said, I’m just grateful to be out there. It meant a lot.”
It was Winston’s first game action since the injury. He completed 4 of 4 passes for 59 yards and took the rest of the night off.
“Grateful,” Winston kept saying. “I’m so grateful just to be back in the dome, playing in front of our fans. Gratitude. I just kept telling the Lord (before the game), ‘Thank you. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to be back on the field in front of these fans in the same place where I was carried off.’ I am just grateful to be back. I’ve been telling all of the people that helped me with this process. ‘Thank you.'”
The dome was rocking that Halloween night when the Saints and Winston beat the Bucs and Tom Brady, 36-27. Winston completed 6 of 10 passes for 56 yards with a 16-yard touchdown to Tre’Quan Smith before the injury. He was off to one of the most efficient starts to a season in his career when he got hurt. Winston finished 95-of-161 passing (59 percent) for 1,170 yards with 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions in the seven games.
His plus-11 in the touchdown-to-interception ratio was the best of his career. He threw 33 interceptions to 30 touchdowns in his fifth and last season with Tampa Bay in 2019. The Saints were 5-2 with Winston as the starter before finishing 9-8 and out of the playoffs for the first time since 2016. The defense was great, but the offense struggled without a decent quarterback. Who knows how well they could have done with him starting all 17 games?
Who knows how great Winston could be if Sean Payton was still the Saints’ head coach? Payton “retired” after last season before a likely return to the NFL in another city soon. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen replaced Payton and kept offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who was with Payton since he came to New Orleans in 2006. Carmichael is not Payton, but he knows offense, too.
And if Winston can play the rest of this season as he did on his only drive Friday night, the Saints will win their fifth NFC South title since 2017. Geoff Clark, sports betting analyst for OutKick, says the Saints are a solid pick to win the division at 3 to 1.
Clark loves the Saints’ defense, which he ranks below only Buffalo in the NFL. The offense will have superstar running back Alvin Kamara all season as his hearing and expected suspension of several weeks by the NFL for an altercation before the Pro Bowl early this year in Las Vegas was put off until next season. He was charged with battery that resulted in substantial bodily harm of another person, according to Las Vegas Police.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas – one of the best if not the best in the NFL – is also back after missing all of last season and much of the 2020 season with an ankle injury. And the Saints signed free agent wide receiver Jarvis Landry from Cleveland and drafted Ohio State receiver Chris Olave in the first round.
“If Winston has a great year, the Saints could go far this season,” Clark said. “Their basement would be the playoffs. Their ceiling is the Super Bowl.”
Winston completed a 20-yard pass to Landry on his first attempt Friday. Then he found Landry again for 15 yards. He hit Olave for a 19-yard completion and found Kamara for five yards to the Chargers’ 14-yard line.
“He was comfortable. He was high energy,” said Saints running back Mark Ingram, who rushed nine times for 34 yards with a 1-yard touchdown for a 7-0 lead in Winston’s only drive.
“When you’ve got great talent around you, it’s always better,” Winston said. “Jarvis has been a superstar in this league for a long time. We didn’t even have Mike T out there, so I was just happy that we made it efficient between the run and the pass and had some of our superstars step up and make some big plays.”
Thomas did not play, but has been healthy throughout training camp and the preseason and is expected to be back at his best for the season opener on Sept. 11 at Atlanta (FOX, 1 p.m. eastern).
Landry, Olave and Thomas give the Saints a better trio of receivers than former Saints quarterback Drew Brees ever came close to having from 2006 through 2020.
“Landry is just an excellent football player and has amazing football awareness,” Winston said. “That is always good for a quarterback.”
So are snaps in a game as possible outside of the regular season.
“I’m happy that I was able to go out and execute today,” Winston said. “I just had a season where I did not finish, so I am just thankful.” And there were a few more “gratefuls.”
Allen wanted to see him once in live action before the season.
“It’s been a while since he’s been in that environment,” Allen said. “I thought he was confident in the pocket. I thought he was decisive with his reads. There were a couple of plays where he really stepped up in there and rifled the ball in. I was impressed. It was good to see.”
The only bad news from the Saints’ only preseason win against two losses was a turf toe injury suffered by first round pick offensive tackle Trevor Penning, who is expected to miss a few weeks.
“This ain’t the last time we’re going to be doing this,” Allen said to the team in a rocking locker room. “I expect to have this feeling and this music playing in this locker room a lot this year.”
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Famous bout to have a big season