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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Flakes, PE

Leadership or Defiance? Unpacking Jameis Winston's Bold End-Game Decision

How Winston's decision sparks a debate about accountability and trust in leadership.

Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints quarterback looking down. (October 10, 2021)
New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (All Pro Reels | October 10, 2021)

Jameis Winston's final play of the 2023 season sparked a firestorm of debate, not for a record-breaking pass but for a controversial decision: defying his coach to score a late touchdown. While some condemn this act as insubordination, others see it as a display of leadership and loyalty. Let's dissect this nuanced situation.

Unfolding the Controversy

In the closing moments of the New Orleans Saints’ season finale against the Atlanta Falcons, the Saints were leading 41-17 late in the game and were at the Falcons’ one-yard line. Yet, something unexpected unfolded. Instead of the anticipated kneel-down to seal the win, New Orleans backup quarterback Jameis Winston defied coach Dennis Allen's instructions and called a play that led to a touchdown for teammate Jamaal Williams. This seemingly simple act triggered a controversy, igniting arguments about leadership, loyalty, and the essence of "unwritten rules" in the game.

Two Opposite Perspectives

While some vehemently criticize Winston's decision as insubordinate, detrimental to team discipline, and undermining Allen's authority, others, accepting the deviation from protocol, feel the specific play design within "victory formation" lacked sportsmanship and seriousness.

Maybe the harshest criticism came from sports commentator and NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, who called for Winston's release, attributing the act to a "loser mentality."

Winston’s defenders, however, applauded the positive impact of boosting Williams' morale and showcasing his willingness to put team camaraderie above protocol. His teammates' support, including running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jimmy Graham, speaks volumes about their trust in his leadership. Former teammate Mark Ingram even gave Winston high praise.

Going Beyond the Binary Decision

The truth, as often, lies somewhere in the middle. While disobeying a direct order is technically wrong, judging the act solely on disobedience misses the bigger picture. Here's what warrants consideration:

Intent Matters

Winston's intention wasn't to embarrass Allen but to uplift Williams. This act of camaraderie resonates with teammates and fans alike. After the game, Winston addressed the media about the play.

“The score was already 41-17, so I don’t know how much worse it can get, but I got a ton of respect for Arthur Smith [Falcons head coach] and the coach that he is. I didn’t want to disrespect [Smith]. That was not my intention. My intention was to lead the team that I’ve been with the entire year, and we made a collective decision that we wanted to get one of our guys that they fight with — blood, sweat and tears, every game — in the end zone. I’m going to feel good about that."

Contextual Understanding

The game was already decided, and the "victory" decision might have felt anticlimactic for a player like Williams, who strived for a touchdown all season. Starting quarterback David Carr acknowledged the context when asked about the incident.

"Jamaal led the [Detroit Lions] in touchdowns last year and he didn't have one this year. ... Just as players, you just love your buddy so much that ... sometimes, in this league, ain't nothing a coach can do, no matter who it is. Players sometimes want to take care of their guys, and coaches end up having to deal with that wrath sometimes."

Leadership Dilemma 

Winston faced a leadership challenge – balancing obedience with player morale. In a split-second decision, he prioritized the latter, highlighting a different facet of leadership.

“This is the thing: It’s about the team. It’s not about regrets. It’s not about anything else. It’s about us as a team making a collective decision. But I do apologize to Dennis. I apologize to DA because that was not his call."

While Winston's decision prioritized player morale over protocol, it's important to acknowledge the potential downsides of such an approach. Deviating from blind obedience can disrupt team order, undermine authority, and even have future consequences like loss of trust or disciplinary action. Winston's act, while well-intentioned, could have unintended repercussions that need to be considered in the larger context of team dynamics and leadership.

Lessons Learned

This incident provides four valuable lessons for leaders in various contexts:

  1. Effective Communication: Communication between decision-makers and stakeholders is essential to avoid misunderstandings and conflict. A culture of open dialogue where employees feel comfortable questioning or proposing alternatives could prevent similar situations in the future.

  2. Leadership Nuances: Leadership isn't always about blind obedience. Sometimes, acting in the team's best interest, even if it deviates from protocol, can be a mark of strong leadership.

  3. Context Matters: Judging actions in isolation paints an incomplete picture. Understanding the context and intent behind decisions is crucial for fair assessment.

  4. Accountability: Although open communication and understanding context are crucial for effective leadership, leaders must also be accountable for their actions. While good intentions should be considered, actions must be assessed objectively, and necessary consequences for actions inconsistent with expectations should be addressed to maintain discipline and trust within the team.

The Final Verdict

While Winston's decision was technically disobedient, its motivation and impact weren't purely negative. It showcased a complex facet of leadership, prioritizing team morale over protocol. While critics have valid points, dismissing it solely as an act of rebellion misses the opportunity to learn from the situation's nuances. However, it's worth noting that Winston didn't shy away from accountability. His apologies to Allen and acknowledgment of potential consequences demonstrate leadership qualities and a willingness to take responsibility for his actions.


Questions to Consider

  • Was Jameis Winston’s choice an act of defiance or leadership?

  • Can a leader prioritize team morale over following orders without undermining authority and team discipline?

  • How does the leader's intent or motivation behind their actions influence the assessment of their decision-making? 

  • When leaders make decisions that have unforeseen consequences, how should they approach accountability and responsibility in a way that preserves trust and strengthens team dynamics?

Join the conversation in the comments below, and let's analyze this touchdown from every angle.


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Cover Image Photo Attribution by All-Pro Reels

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