Tampa Bay Buccaneers  

 

Jameis Winston's future -- not past -- to define public, pro legacy

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TAMPA BAY, Fla. -- Twenty thousand people packed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' draft party Thursday night, and, before the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft was even halfway over, they could buy the freshly minted No. 3 jersey that was already for sale.

That kind of enthusiasm -- and commerce -- doesn't come without electrifying talent. In the case of Jameis Winston, who was already photographed wearing that new No. 3 -- more on that later -- it also doesn't come without a heavy burden and a good bit of risk.

The people who packed Raymond James Stadium for Round 1 of the draft are the same ones Winston asked for help, just a few minutes after the Bucs made the former Florida State quarterback the first overall pick. Winston's off-field issues at FSU have been well-documented, but the crab legs incident and lewd internet meme controversy were only the easiest things to hash over and certainly the easiest for teams to chalk up to youth. It was the accusation of sexual assault -- never charged, never proven -- that follows Winston to Tampa and that makes this a far more treacherous selection than any college game film would indicate.

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Plenty of draft debates have centered around arm slots and hip swivels. But Winston might be the most polarizing pick in NFL history precisely because of the unsettling calculus that his selection required. After months of research in which the Bucs said they found no reason not to draft Winston, they chose what they figured was the less risky path. Had they passed on him, the chance that Winston would have been selected by another team and become a Pro Bowl, playoff-bound quarterback is probably greater -- they hope, we all hope -- than the chance Winston will have another serious brush with the law that would embarrass the franchise, imperil his career and, not incidentally, doom the jobs of those who have chosen to believe in him. Still, it's not every day that a celebrating general manager is greeted with this question in a press conference:

"Is he a good guy?"

Jason Licht said the Bucs would not have used the first pick on Winston if he weren't a good guy, noting that Winston had won over everybody in the building with his disarming personality, his work ethic and what Licht called his football character. That is different from real-life character, of course, and that's the part Winston will have to go to work on as immediately and diligently as he will set out to learn the playbook.

Those fans in the stadium -- some were still reveling even three hours after the first round had ended -- are desperate for a winner, and Tallahassee is now in Winston's rearview mirror, with only a civil lawsuit brought by his accuser still left unresolved. So all anybody can do is hope that the Bucs' judgment is correct, that the string of events that tired out even some of FSU's most fervent followers will fade away with maturity and Winston will turn out to be as charming as he sounded on the phone from Alabama on Thursday night. Because it is also not every day that a franchise quarterback is compelled to declare twice -- just minutes after he is drafted -- that he has been cleared six times by the various entities that looked into that sexual assault accusation.

"This is just not a draft pick; this is about affecting people in the community and being a great young man," Winston said, noting that he had already talked to the Bucs' beloved Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks about speaking to schoolchildren. "I really would want Tampa, the city of Tampa, to help build me and to help me become a better young man and become someone that they would want in their community."

The Bucs obviously believed that is the person they are getting. Head coach Lovie Smith, as calm and reasonable a man as any in the NFL, said he did not see a pattern of misbehavior from Winston and believes the 21-year-old merely made mistakes that young people do. The Bucs coach trusted his instincts on Winston, and he appealed for others to give Winston a chance.

"Don't have any preconceived opinions about him and just let him show us who he is as a man and as a football player, which we are going to ask about all our draft picks," Smith said.

The concern for the Bucs has to be if Winston can't convince everyone. Winston met with league officials early in the run-up to the draft, and while it was a positive that he took the initiative, the meeting itself did not convince everyone there that Winston gets it. There are those who were privy to those conversations who wonder if Winston is still too me-oriented to fully grasp the significance of the responsibility now on his shoulders. That's not an uncommon worry about a 21-year-old, but it's a nerve-wracking one about a 21-year-old to whom an entire franchise's future and a whole lot of professional reputations are now hitched.

That late Thursday night photo of a jubilant Winston wearing his jersey -- and chowing down on an enormous plate of crab legs -- may have produced giggles for its cheeky allusion to one of the more mundane pieces of Winston's baggage, in which he either shoplifted or was given by a store employee crab legs from a local grocery store. Maybe that picture was Winston's way of winking at the controversy that engulfed him -- or maybe it was just dinner -- but it probably didn't reassure some people who question if he gets the importance of every one of his public moves.

Everybody wants to believe he will because there isn't much choice. It was folly to think that teams would repeatedly pass on the best quarterback prospect to come out in several years unless the whiff of trouble morphed into something much more definitive. That never happened with Winston, and so all that matters with him is what happens from here on out.

It will be painful and uncomfortable for many, but the reality of Winston's situation is that, no matter the doubts about the thoroughness of police investigations or the foibles of the legal system, Winston's past is going to amount to very little -- if anything at all -- on his official record. The record that will get much more attention starting now is the one Winston puts together on the field. The Bucs just staked their franchise on the hope that he can keep both very clean.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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