2013 was Jameis Winston's year.
The first-year starter completed 25 of 27 passes for four touchdowns and 356 yards in his debut against Pittsburgh, before wrapping up the season with a late game-winning touchdown pass in the National Championship game. In between those two peaks, he threw for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns while winning every single game of a Heisman season.
In a year when there were many standout quarterbacks playing college football, Winston surpassed them all by such a distance that it seems impossible for him to improve in 2014.
His success was primarily built on his exceptional intelligence and brilliant pocket presence. Winston was able to get the most out of the pieces around him by consistently executing the offensive system rather than being a flashy playmaker who took off for big runs or forced perfect passes to his favorite receiver. It sounds easy and it even sounds like a negative when you're projecting Winston forward to the NFL, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
Intelligence, awareness and consistency are three of the most important traits in any quarterback. More specifically, they are traits that translate very well to the NFL. Winston showed off these traits in a number of different ways.
On this play against Pittsburgh, Winston showed off his ability to read the defense while adjusting to pressure in the pocket.
It's important to note the positioning of the safeties before the snap in relation to where the offense is lined up on the field. The offense is offset to the left side with two receivers to the right and a tight end to the left. Because of the offense's alignment and the threat of the run, the defense keeps one safety in the box to the tight end's side of the field and the other deep to the other side of the field.
Winston understands the route combinations in his offense, so when he gets the football he immediately looks at the deep safety to see what he is going to do. What the deep safety does determines where he goes with the football.
However, Winston doesn't have much time to sit back in the pocket and wait for the deep safety to make a definite move. His protection immediately breaks down at the snap to the right side of the line, so Winston has to react to the incoming edge rusher while still reading the coverage.
In spite of the incoming pressure, Winston's eyes never drop. This is a trait that lots of quarterbacks currently starting in the NFL don't have. Winston's eye level is rarely affected by pressure or a closing pocket. He feels out pressure and reacts to it instinctively. On this play, he slides away from the incoming rusher while still maintaining good balance to begin his throwing motion.
While the edge pressure did affect Winston, his sliding motion and balance allowed him to throw the ball comfortably. His ability to adjust in the pocket while still keeping his eyes downfield was subtle and looked relatively simple, but the degree of difficulty and value of this play is massive compared to a quarterback who drops his eyes and tries to scramble when he is pressured.
Coaches don't design offenses to work with a quarterback who can't handle pressure or read a defense. They will adjust out of necessity when they don't have the quality of players to execute a more complex offense, but generally sticking to the design of the offense is what brings the most success.
Winston allowed the offense to stick to its design with his masterful management of the pocket and his intelligence to read the defense. While sliding away from the pressure he took his eyes away from the deep safety, who had stayed on the far side of the field, to locate his tight end on the near side of the field.
That tight end, the talented Nick O'Leary, was running a double move against the safety who had initially lined up closer to the line of scrimmage. Because that safety was in close proximity to O'Leary, there was a huge amount of space behind him down the seam. The safety falls for the fake and O'Leary has an easy reception on a simple throw for Winston.
The throw itself was simple, but the play from the quarterback wasn't. What Winston did before he began his throwing motion allowed the offense to work as designed and allowed himself to attempt an easy pass.
Having the ability to create easy throws and still run a very effective offense is much more valuable than having a quarterback who relies on his physical ability to make more difficult plays. More difficult plays are riskier by definition.
Last year, Peyton Manning set a passing touchdown record in the NFL by repeatedly making easy throws. He was able to do this because he can read NFL defenses the same way Winston can read college defenses. Significantly, Manning also understood two other aspects of intelligent quarterback play. The first is throwing with anticipation.
When Manning lost Ryan Clady last year, nobody really noticed. In fact, most didn't notice that the Broncos offensive line wasn't actually very impressive in pass protection. Manning took pressure off of his line by creating hesitation in the defensive front with different play calls and by throwing with anticipation.
Quarterbacks who throw with anticipation are able to get rid of the ball quicker because they don't need to wait until they can see their receiver open. Pass rushers already have a very small window of time to get to the quarterback, when you can shorten that window with an earlier release, it becomes very, very difficult to consistently get pressure.
Winston takes a deep drop on this play and appears to looking at Rashad Greene when he settles at the top of his drop. Greene is running directly down the seam with a defender tight to his body in man coverage. When Winston begins his throwing motion, Greene is still tightly covered and running towards the opposition's goal line.
Although it didn't look like it when Winston let the ball go, Greene is actually running a deep out route. Winston recognized the space outside of his intended receiver when he began his throwing motion, so he was able to let the ball go early. When Greene comes out of his break, the ball is already in the air and he just has to run underneath it.
Not only does Winston make it tougher for the pass rush to disrupt him by throwing with anticipation, he also makes it very difficult for defensive backs to get a break on the ball.
Greene ran a good route on this play, so he deserves a lot of credit, but the defensive back also didn't get any time to react to his route because the ball was arriving almost instantaneously. This means that Winston didn't have to make a difficult throw that required more precise accuracy and more velocity on the ball.
Building an efficient offense on simple throws is an ideal situation, but it asks a lot from the quarterback mentally. The second way that Peyton Manning does this to perfection is with checkdowns.