There's leading the pack into a preseason game, and then there's leading a NFL franchise into its regular-season opener.
Jameis Winston, officially confirmed as the New Orleans Saints' starting quarterback a little more than a week ago, did the former against the Jaguars in the second preseason game, and will do the latter Sunday, Sept. 12 when the Saints open the season against Green Bay at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Winston hasn't started an NFL game since Dec. 29, 2019, with Tampa Bay against Atlanta. As a backup in New Orleans last year he saw action in four regular-season games, and threw a 56-yard touchdown pass in the Saints' NFC Divisional playoff game loss to Tampa Bay.
But Sunday, he'll again lead from a familiar position, which he occupied for five seasons with Tampa Bay.
"It's just fun," Winston said Wednesday. "It's a blessing. It's a blessing to have this opportunity to lead the pack, and I'm just grateful for it. It's been more than a year removed for me having the opportunity, and I'm not taking anything for granted. I'm just blessed, and grateful."
He earned the starting job after a training camp competition with Taysom Hill, who started four games for the Saints last year when Drew Brees was injured. The team was 3-1 in those games.
"It felt great," Winston said of being named the starter. "I think the whole training camp, we made each other better and this team grew while we were competing. I was blessed to get the nod and I'm just grateful for that. I'm grateful for my teammates for pushing me, I'm grateful for Taysom for pushing me and us helping each other get better."
Winston often has spoken of how beneficial it was last year for him to watch Brees' preparation for games and his execution during games. It's an approach that teammates noticed, and appreciate.
"I think coming from where he came from, with him being The Man, and him being the leader that he was with Tampa, and coming over here kind of having to take a backseat, I think it showed another side of Jameis," receiver Marquez Callaway said. "Because he's used to being top dog everywhere he's been, but when he came here, when he had to take that backseat, he had to sit back and observe.
"I think he did a great job of that. I can't imagine what he's learned from Drew, and Taysom being in the room last year. But him sitting back and learning everything, it just kind of prepares him this year. I think he's eager, he's hungry and he's ready for this year."
Eager, hungry and ready seem to be apt labels for Winston as he prepares to lead another pack into the season.
"Consistent preparation," he said. "That's the biggest thing. The game is going to be the game, it's going to be the most exciting part. Winning is going to be the most exciting part.
"But we've been in this position before. It's going to be exciting for the young rookies running out the tunnel. I wish we were running out in the Superdome. But I'm just going to be excited to play against another opponent for four quarters, and play some good football."
FOR THE CITY: Before Winston entertained any questions from the media, he said he wanted to make a statement. It was a powerful one: "I want to say 'Thank You,' to all the first responders and the people on the ground right now, and all the grass roots organizations working in New Orleans right now, to help our city be resilient. I know that New Orleans, we've been through this before, but our culture is strong. We're going to feed off of this adversity to make us stronger. We're with you. Everybody in Louisiana, we're with you. We're going to represent for you."
JONESING FOR 21: Few jersey numbers in Saints history have been more popular in a training camp than the No. 21 has been this year. First, cornerback Patrick Robinson wore it, but he retired. Next up was cornerback Prince Amukamara, but he was released. Then, there was cornerback Natrell Jamerson, who also was released. Now, there seems to be a solid home for it, with running back Tony Jones Jr. Jones was a training camp and preseason standout, rushing for 106 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries in two preseason games. His performance was strong enough to elevate him to the No. 2 running back spot, behind Alvin Kamara, and gave New Orleans the confidence to release Latavius Murray, the No. 2 back in 2019-20, after the team signed cornerback Desmond Trufant.
BACK AT IT: As stated by Coach Sean Payton, Hill was back in his jack-of-all-trades role Wednesday. He opened practice working with the tight ends; Hill rose to a prominent position with the Saints due to his ability to play special teams, tight end and receiver in addition to taking some snaps at quarterback during games. Last year, the team went 3-1 in the four games he started at quarterback, and he also caught eight passes for 98 yards and a touchdown, and ran 87 times for 457 yards and eight touchdowns.