Winston proves his mettle in big win over the Rams
Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Times, published 30 September 2019|
In a game that nearly reached the century mark in total points, one that set an NFL record for combined pass completions, naturally it was a defensive play that sealed it. Ndamukong Suh scooped up a fumble from Rams quarterback Jared Goff and lumbered 37 yards for a touchdown with 1:06 left Sunday in the Bucs’ 55-40 win over the Los Angeles Rams. “What a way for him to get a touchdown against his old (Rams) teammates,’’ Jameis Winston said.
A week ago, the Bucs blew an 18-point halftime lead to the New York Giants to lose 32-31. On Sunday, they led the defending NFC Champions by the 18 in the fourth quarter when the lug nuts on the wheels began to loosen.
Goff, who matched a league record with 45 completions for 517 yards, got the Rams closer with a touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp and cornerback Marcus Peters followed by returning an interception of Winston for a touchdown to cut the lead to 45-40.
But Winston, who passed for 385 yards and four scores, mounted a drive for a field goal that set a franchise record for points scored and gave the Bucs some breathing room. "It was a tough loss last week, but victories like this can galvanize a team,'' coach Bruce Arians said. "This team is starting to believe and see what they can be.''
After the game, however, the air and hearts were heavy inside the cramped Bucs’ locker room at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. On Saturday night, while watching college football on television in the team hotel, general manager Jason Licht got a phone call telling him that his 80-year-old father, Ron, had died at a family tailgate at the Nebraska-Ohio State football game.
Licht left the team immediately to be with his family.
“He left pretty quick,’’ said John Spytek, the Bucs director of player personnel. “I went and visited him in his room a little bit and he said, ‘I lost my best friend.’ ’’
After the game, a Bucs executive dialed Licht on FaceTime and Arians presented him with the game ball as players roared in the background.
“When I saw the phone, (Licht) was pretty red-faced,’’ Spytek said. “B.A. held the phone up and said, ‘This one is for you, Jason.’ ”
Everybody owned a piece of it. Start with Winston, who deserved a better fate last week after throwing three touchdown passes and leading his team on what should’ve been the celebratory drive before Gay missed a 34-yarder as time expired. Winston was having his best day passing against Goff, the matinee idol quarterback of the Rams and fellow No. 1 overall pick who has already earned a $100-million payday. But Peters’ pick-six threatened to ruin his day.
This time, he responded and Gay was redemptive. Winston led the Bucs on a field-goal drive to gain some separation and milk the clock. Gay made a 21-yard field goal to go with his successful 58-yard attempt and seven extra points. “It was fun being in the Coliseum,’’ Winston said. “L.A. Under the lights. Lights, camera, action! Hollywood. And we had a great game. We’ve just got to continue to do that.’’
Winston’s fourth TD was a beauty. The Rams had doubled Mike Evans all afternoon, allowing Chris Godwin to hurt them with 12 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich anticipated an all-out blitz. Winston told Evans to be ready and he ran by safety Eric Weddle to haul in a 67-yard pass. “I told Mike, ‘It’s coming to you,’ ’’ Winston said. “They were doubling him the whole game. They gave him the opportunity and he burned them.’’
While the defense allowed Goff to keep bringing the Rams back, they also forced four turnovers, including interceptions by Lavonte David and Jordan Whitehead. Shaquil Barrett, who entered the game with an NFL-leading eight sacks and should be NFC defensive player of the month, stripped Goff of the football that Suh recovered. He also had his first career interception. In fact, the Bucs scored 28 of their 55 points off turnovers.
“I don’t like giving up 40 points,’’ Barrett said. “That’s what you do in college. I do need to give them credit. They were 13-3 and NFC Champs. They’re fighters. They weren’t going to go out without punching back.’’
The Bucs melted the clock away in the fourth quarter with Ronald Jones, returning to the field where he starred at in college at Southern Cal, breaking a big 24-yard run late in the game.
“Games like this, they’re big,’’ Arians said. “They’re big for the future. They could’ve gone the other way like others have, but we found ways to win it.’’
The Bucs still have a long way to go, but at 2-2, they’re tied for second in the NFC South. Sunday’s trip to Los Angeles was the start of five games away from Tampa Bay and 20,400 miles of travel, including a game against the Panthers in London Oct. 13. After the game, Arians said his thoughts immediately went to Licht and his family.
Ron Licht didn’t get to play sports because he had to help his father around the farm to earn money to support his two brothers and two sisters. But he never missed one of Jason’s games in any sport growing up and he sort of lived through his accomplishments as a college football player and career as an NFL executive. “I love Jason and I had the pleasure of meeting his father, his family,'' Winston said. "We sent our condolences to him. That was a big win for him. That win was for him.''
It was Licht who lured Arians out of retirement, thinking he was the perfect head coach to ignite Winston and help turn around a franchise quickly that has not reached the playoffs since 2008. The two worked together when Arians coached in Arizona and the core of players on this team were either drafted or signed by Licht.
“They hurt, the guys that know Jason well,’’ Arians said. “We were sitting there and watching college football and you get that call. I’ve had that call and it’s tough. And I know Jason said his dad was doing what he loved to do. Football and family and a Nebraska game. So that part of it is great. We’re all praying for him.’’
Maybe big Ron answered a few Sunday. After all, Suh, who scooped up that fumble, played at Nebraska. Barrett spent a year playing at Nebraska-Omaha.
“I’m at a loss for words,’’ Jason Licht texted after the game. “Really am. My dad would be so proud.’’