The No. 1 quarterback in the recruiting class of 2012, Jameis Winston visited LSU, Alabama, and Stanford, but stuck with his Florida State commitment on National Signing Day. He had played a season of major-conference sports, and showed off Major League arm strength, before his first college football snap. He got Heisman hype before anyone had seem him play competitive college football.
Jameis Winston faced unfair expectations heading into his Monday night debut, but he exceeded them anyway.
He completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards, four touchdowns, and no picks. He took a couple of sacks, but he also carried six times for 34 yards and a score. He completed passes to seven receivers, directed Florida State for scores on seven consecutive drives and left Pittsburgh the talk of college football. Not bad.
Plenty of great quarterbacks have looked good in their respective first games. Two-time national champion AJ McCarron completed nine of 14 passes for 116 yards and a score. 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel completed 23 of 30 passes for 173 yards and rushed for 60 more, and against a great Florida defense to boot. 2011 Heisman winner Robert Griffin III completed 11 of 19 for 125 and rushed for 29. 2007 Heisman winner and two-time national champion Tim Tebow completed six of nine passes for 81 yards and a pick and rushed for 62 yards as a second-stringer. And in a season of mop-up duty behind Tebow at Florida, eventual 2010 Heisman winner and national champion Cam Newton completed five of 10 passes and rushed for 103 yards as a freshman.
But in terms of recent history, only two quarterbacks' first games compare with what Winston pulled off on Monday night. In 2007, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford completed 21 of 23 passes for 363 yards and three scores. In 2010, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez completed nine of 15 passes for 136 yards and rushed seven times for 127 yards and three touchdowns. Their opponents in those games: North Texas and Western Kentucky.
Bradford and Martinez did not face the same level of hype and national pressure heading into those games, and Pittsburgh is not North Texas or Western Kentucky.
Paul Chryst's Pitt defense got treated rather poorly last night, both by Florida State and commentators. There was quite a bit of "Yeah, but this is just Pitt," both in the ESPN booth and on the Internet. And to be sure, the Panthers don't have the greatest pass defense in the world. They ranked 46th in Passing S&P+ last season -- inefficient but solid at preventing big plays -- but return every corner from 2012 (including K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts, who combined to defense 15 passes last year) and bring back both a disruptive pass-rushing tackle in Aaron Donald and a strong blitzer in Ejuan Price. And after a slow start last fall, the Panthers were downright good over the season's final months, slowing down good offenses (Syracuse averaged 4.8 yards per play, Notre Dame 5.0) and crushing bad ones (USF averaged 2.4 per play, Rutgers 3.3).
This wasn't a cake defense, but Winston made it look one. He made quick, easy throws when available, and when pressure was in his face (Donald sacked him once and hurried him once, and sophomore linebacker Nicholas Grigsby brought him down once as well), he either stepped up in the pocket and took calm, accurate shots downfield or took his lick and made up the yardage on the next play. His maturity was so impressive that you have to go down to "Took a delay of game penalty once because he wasn't keeping up with the play clock well enough" to check anything off on the Freshman Quarterback Mistakes checklist.
This was really, really impressive.
It was also only one performance, of course. In his fifth game, Bradford completed eight of 19 passes and threw two picks in an upset loss to Colorado. In his sixth game, Martinez completed four of 12 passes and rushed for just 21 yards in a 20-13 loss to Texas. Winston faces both potentially elite competition on the road (Clemson on October 19, Florida on November 30) and teams with explosive offenses, who could keep up for at least a little while in a shootout, at home (Nevada on September 14, Maryland on October 5, NC State on October 26, Miami on November 2). He will fall into a funk at some point, and he will have to come through in the fourth quarter at some point. It just happens. He's not going to complete 93 percent of his passes all season, no matter how cool it would be if he did.
But all we know at this point is that his debut was trickier than typical first tests (he faced a fired-up new conference rival, and non-cupcake, on the road), he was destined to be graded on an unfairly high curve, and he got an A+++. And Florida State's ceiling for 2013 got a little higher in the process.
Finally, a note to those who had to try to ruin the fun last night by not only comparing Winston's performance to Johnny Manziel's but by comparing him personally to Manziel: Stop. Just stop. Other than the fact that they play the same position and are good at it, the two have almost nothing in common. And it's a lot more fun to actually find out a young guy's strengths and weaknesses from scratch instead of ascribing somebody else's traits to him.
If you can't talk about Johnny Manziel without becoming the unwitting Tony Schiavone to his Hulk Hogan, just stop talking about him altogether, at least until it's time to write a Texas A&M-Alabama preview. He's baiting you into overreacting, and you've taken the bait. Manziel's heel turn is something I don't remember ever seeing in an actual sport, and I understand that he's going to raise some hackles -- he is, after all, trying to do just that -- but you don't have to go down this predictable road of bluster and hyper-sensitivity.
Just because you've decided that Manziel is All That's Wrong With College Football or Bringing Shame To The Game, and just because you've decided Winston is all that's right and virtuous in the world, doesn't mean Winston's not going to let you down at some point. You probably liked Manziel quite a bit after one game, too, and Winston probably has traits of his own that you'll pick on if he disappoints you. We don't have to go down this road. And just because we've started doesn't mean we can't still turn back around and try a new one.
Winston seems fun, engaging, and ridiculously talented. Let's just leave it at that for now.