The last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visited the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, they sported a full beard.
And the New Orleans Saints couldn’t cut it.
Bushy-faced quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick played brilliantly a year ago, leading the double-digit underdog Buccaneers to a stunning 48-40 upset in Week 1 of the 2018 regular season. FitzMagic threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another TD while posting a gaudy 156.2 passer rating.
The Beard is gone, now playing for the Miami Dolphins.
But the shadow still lurks in the form of baby-faced quarterback Jameis Winston and that makes the Buccaneers a dangerous road ‘dog Sunday at high noon inside the temperature-controlled Superdome.
The game opened Saints at -5 1/2 but the line now sits at minus 3.
Winston missed last year’s game in New Orleans while serving a season-opening three-game suspension for violation of the league’s personal conduct policy.
The question is which Winston will show up Sunday: The one who threw three INTs and posted a dismal 45.4 passer rating on home soil in a season-opening 31-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, or the one who was just named NFC Offensive Player of the Week after lighting up the heavily-favored Rams in a 55-40 win at Los Angeles Memorial Stadium?
Winston shredded the Rams for a season-high 385 yards passing and four touchdowns, suggesting the presence of first-year coach and highly acclaimed “quarterback whisperer’‘ Bruce Arians is making a difference.
Arians, a prostate cancer survivor, turned 67 Thursday. He came out of the CBS broadcast booth and a brief retirement in January to assume the reins of the Buccaneers who have failed to make the postseason since the 2007 season.
Winston is facing a pivotal point in his NFL career. Originally the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Winston is four games into the final year of his contract after team officials decided to pick up the fifth-year option and pay him a base salary of $20.922 million.
Where Winston winds up after this season is anyone’s guess.
But Arians is optimistic, saying Winston is growing weekly in the offense and working well with Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich and Quarterbacks Coach Clyde Christensen.
Under their collective tutelage, Winston reportedly is making better throws into tight windows, beating the blitz and getting the ball out faster. According to ESPN Stats & Info going into Week 5, Winston leads the league with 62 percent of his passes against the blitz resulting in either a touchdown or first down.
The Bucs also appear to have rediscovered their mojo under new DC Todd Bowles, plus the arrival of defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and emergence of star outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, an early candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year who leads the league with nine sacks.
By comparison, the entire Saints team has 10 sacks.
Then again, who’s counting.
The bottom line is these Buccaneers don’t appear to be your grandfather’s or even your father’s Buccaneers. That said, look for the Black and Gold to win by a close shave.