TAMPA, Fla. -- The opposing quarterback this week looks very familiar to Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera. He sees a spirited young signal-caller with a dazzling, albeit short college resume, an inextinguishable competitive fire and an ability that leaps off the tape.
Jameis Winston's playing style -- a drop-back passer with an arm so strong one of his first passes tore through another rookie's glove -- is different from that of Rivera's quarterback, Cam Newton, a scrambling, dual-threat dynamo with freakish size and speed. But the Panthers coach sees the same electricity. He also sees the same charisma and the growing pains while carrying the hope of a downtrodden but eager fan base.
Winston makes astonishing plays that have you going, "How did he do that?" -- like "the scramble" against the Atlanta Falcons on third-and-19 last season that set up the winning touchdown or the two dimes he tossed in the second half of Week 1. But on the flip side, there was the pick-six he threw on his first NFL pass, or the four interceptions he threw in one game against Rivera's defense last season that make you go, "How did he do that?"
Rivera knows this roller-coaster ride well because he endured it with Newton, whom the Panthers drafted No. 1 overall in 2011, months after Rivera was named head coach. He believes that if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are patient and stay the course, then things will pay off with Winston the way they did for him and Newton.
"Our guy went through the same thing, exactly," Rivera said. "He wins a national championship, wins a Heisman Trophy and then his first couple of years in the league were hard. They were very hard. They were great learning experiences."
Like the Bucs before they drafted Winston, the Panthers were 2-14 the season before acquiring Newton. And like Winston with the Bucs, Newton's rise through the NFL ranks wasn't as meteoric as his days in college, where he dominated every opponent he encountered. Newton finished 6-10 his first year and 7-9 his second year. But by 2013, they'd finished 12-4 and clinched the NFC South title. It was their first winning season and first playoff appearance since 2008.
"In his third season, things just kind of came together," Rivera said of Newton, who won the NFL MVP in 2015, his fifth season. "When I look at Tampa, I see those things. I really do. I just think it's one of those things -- with a little bit of patience and a little bit of time, I think they're headed in the right direction."
In Winston's rookie season, he threw seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in the first five weeks. He wound up throwing for more than 4,000 yards, 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Bucs finished 6-10, but Winston's efforts earned him Pro Football Focus and Pepsi Rookie of the Year honors and culminated in a Pro Bowl invite after Tom Brady bowed out.
The inconsistency has continued for Winston in Year 2. After tossing four touchdown passes in a Week 1 victory against the Falcons and being named NFC Offensive Player of the Week, Winston has thrown seven picks in the past three games, all losses. His eight interceptions overall are second-most in the league.
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter pointed to the two interceptions Winston threw in a 27-7 loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 4 as the reason they lost. He hasn't backed off his tough-love stance, and that's actually the way Winston prefers it.
"Jameis is his own worst critic," said Koetter, who worked with Winston last year as offensive coordinator. "Jameis can take coaching as good as any guy I've ever been around. Jameis likes to be coached hard. His dad [Antonor Winston] brought him up that way. Jimbo [Fisher] coached him that way at Florida State. So, Jameis is a realist.
"... You can't B.S. the players," Koetter said. "They know what's right and what's wrong. The tape hardly lies with that kind of stuff, so as long as you're not telling them one thing and the tape doesn't say another, you don't have to be afraid of telling these guys the truth."
Rivera, who called Koetter's work with Winston "tremendous," urges patience from fans.
"His consistency, being himself has turned him into the 2015 MVP. He never let anyone change him, he never let anyone change his ways -- he only changed for the better -- and that's how I'm going to be. I'm going to be myself." Jameis Winston on Cam Newton
"Let's not forget: it's only his second season," Rivera said. "I think people get a little anxious. I think people will learn to take a deep breath and relax. It looks like they're trying to do the things that you need to do to be successful with a young quarterback and that's get people around him to protect him and then get some playmakers -- it's a process and they're going through it."
Winston said he got some valuable advice from Newton.
"Be yourself," Winston said. "His consistency being himself has turned him into the 2015 MVP. He never let anyone change him, he never let anyone change his ways -- he only changed for the better -- and that's how I'm going to be. I'm going to be myself, I'm going to go out there and compete and I'm going to get better every year.”
For Winston, "being himself" has meant everything from pulling Vincent Jackson, who is 11 years his senior, aside in the middle of a game and saying, "Hey, I need you," to approaching four-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy in the offseason and asking him to take a different leadership approach this season.
Rivera believes authenticity is vital for young players such as Winston and Newton, who both had to step into key positions from Day 1 and lead players much older than them in the huddle.
"I've always felt that you need to keep your personality," Rivera said. "You need to have fun. Try not to be more, try not to be less than who you really are. I think guys will appreciate that if they know you're being true to yourself. When [you] do that, guys pick up on it and they appreciate that.”
He believes the biggest similarity between Winston and Newton is their competitiveness, which can be a blessing and a curse because they will do whatever it takes to keep plays alive, including forcing throws that aren't there rather than taking a sack or throwing the ball away.
“I do see some of our guy in Jameis," Rivera said. "Jameis ... he wants to win. These guys compete to win. It's funny because people talk about, ‘Oh, he should learn this.' The only thing the guy knows is how to win and that's what he wants to do."
Koetter agrees, and feels Rivera's plan with Cam and how he's brought the rest of his team along is something the Bucs can pattern their team after.
"I do see some similarities," Koetter said. "Carolina drafted Cam [and] built around him. We drafted Jameis here. We're gonna build around Jameis. Cam was the MVP last year. We feel like with Jameis, we'd love to see him in contention for that award someday."