By Judy Battista | Published Sept. 15, 2016
TAMPA, Fla. -- The rain was coming down so hard on the slanted roof that it sounded like an enormous air conditioner had just cranked up inside the dank Tropicana Field dome. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, without their own indoor practice space, had been forced to cross a causeway in a downpour to squeeze in a day of training camp at the Rays' home field last month, creating a movable feast of football that had a play clock on the warning track, pylons on the shiny turf and the team's star breaking up a brief practice scuffle in center field.
If there was an advantage to this setup -- and there was not much of one, as blunt-talking coach Dirk Koetter made plain later that day -- it was that the absence of fans and blasting music allowed for Jameis Winston's voice to carom around the empty baseball stadium as the Bucs made their way through a light practice. With a coaches' edict to have no collisions and players wearing no pads, the energy of the practice was generated mostly by Winston, who slapped hands with his offensive linemen, ran after his receivers and exhorted the offense when it came off the field. The urgency of a postseason game had been brought to a moribund summer practice.
"Time to play football! Come on! We all we got!" Winston implored, during what he apparently perceived was one desultory drill.
"That's him, 24/7," left tackle Donovan Smith said. "Even at home, playing video games or chilling, that's him. He loves to compete."
That much was never in doubt when Winston came out of Florida State with a national championship, a Heisman Trophy, an NCAA record for winning his first 26 starts and a reputation for vast football acumen honed in FSU's pro-style offense, a reputation that his rookie NFL season -- the 4,042 yards (third-most by a rookie in NFL history), the 28 total touchdowns, the four-game improvement in the win column -- did nothing to diminish. That he was the consensus best quarterback in the 2015 NFL Draft, the readiest to immediately step into the most important position for a franchise desperate for victories and relevance, was obvious.
"We loved him," said one NFL general manager whose team was not in the market for a quarterback last year. "He was the total package."
He was, at least on the field of play. But his game wasn't the issue that spurred the Bucs to spend more time and resources researching Winston than they ever had before on a draft pick. The off-field concerns from his years in Tallahassee were well-documented. Some were relatively minor, like a controversy over crab legs and the public broadcasting of a lewd internet meme. Winston was also accused of sexual assault. He was never charged, but there later emerged significant questions about the fairness of the police investigation. All of that raised numerous red flags during the run-up to the draft. A second NFL general manager said that when his team did background work on Winston, it "was not very encouraging," and pointed to a lack of maturity as cause for concern. "That being said, he was a 20-year-old kid," the GM added.
Fans snapped up Winston's jersey within minutes of his selection last year. And the Bucs hoped that the most polarizing draft pick in NFL history would prove that the research that made them comfortable with him was accurate.
The night he was drafted first overall, Winston asked the people of Tampa to help him become a better young man and someone they would want in their community. His ebullient personality, the same one on display in that practice a few weeks ago, made it easy for most to embrace him and teammates to gravitate to him. The only real question was whether he would ever give them a reason to reject him.
"I didn't come in trying to prove anything," Winston said after another training camp practice last month. "I just came in trying to be myself. Guys respect that. They respect that more than someone trying to be fake to them."
A year and a half after his selection, whatever concerns there were about Winston seem to have faded for members of the organization and even many fans and members of the media -- although a civil suit filed by the woman who accused him of sexual assault and a second lawsuit Winston filed against her remain active. Whenever those cases move forward and are finally resolved, Winston inevitably will have to address the allegations again.
In the meantime, Winston's first season in Tampa went about as smoothly as even the most optimistic evaluators could have hoped. People in the Bucs organization rave about how quickly Winston embraced his role. When he arrived early for his first day of rookie camp last year -- so that he would be there to greet each of his fellow rookies at the door -- it quickly became part of Winston's lore. And he is still in the door on a daily basis just as the sun starts to lighten the sky, still the last to leave the facilities.
We've got to improve our deep ball to give Mike more chances down the field. It's a fine line. You don't want to coach it out of him all the way. Some of the plays, I'm going, 'Agggghhhh ... Oh, great play!' Because he can fit them in there sometimes. We've got to be careful with that. We don't want to turn Jameis into Captain Checkdown. Dirk Koetter
If there was once speculation about how much of a face of a franchise a player arriving with this much baggage could be, it is long gone. Winston's picture adorns one corner of the facade of Raymond James Stadium. He hosts the team's virtual reality tour of the upgrades recently unveiled at the stadium. He is rolled out to address suite holders, spends hours at his teammates' charitable events, hosts sick children at practice and sends messages to ill fans, almost always with no publicity. Most importantly, the off-field headlines he has generated recently have been of nothing more noteworthy than real-estate transactions -- Winston recently bought a five-bedroom, Mediterranean-style home in a suburb north of Tampa, where he lives with his girlfriend and their dog. He has emerged, very quickly, very comfortably, as the player around whom the rest of the team revolves, from the locker room to the boardroom.
It seems a long way from Winston's draft night, when Bucs general manager Jason Licht met reporters and was asked an unusual question for that celebratory setting: "Is he a good guy?"
"We did so much work on him, it was such an important pick, I really felt we really knew him," Licht said on a recent training camp afternoon last month. "I'm not surprised. He met our expectations. I know it's difficult for the outside world to feel that way, but when I hear people say, 'You must be happy he exceeded your expectations off the field,' he really didn't. We felt this is how he is in terms of his leadership and the way he wins people over. I was happy that it was what we thought it was going to be. I was overjoyed with that. Surprised? No."
The view from the outside world of the NFL as Winston settles into his second season can best be summed up as resignation that they are likely to have to contend with the quarterback's talent for a long time. His four-touchdown performance in a road victory over the Atlanta Falcons -- despite a shaky first quarter -- only served to solidify the expectation that Winston will take the next big step in his career. The Bucs have won one Super Bowl in their 40-year history, but have never had a true franchise quarterback, with none of their top passers -- Josh Freeman, Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer, Vinny Testaverde, Doug Williams -- making it past Year 6 with the team. From the moment Winston was selected, much more was expected of and riding on the young signal caller. In a league constantly searching for the next great quarterback, and often sifting through those who could not fill that role, Winston gave indications last year that he would be a fit for the job.
Not immediately, though. Winston began his rookie season with seven interceptions in his first four games. Koetter, who was Lovie Smith's offensive coordinator last season before being elevated to the top job when Smith was fired after the 2015 Bucs lost their final four games, said turnovers were his biggest knock on Winston when he came out of FSU. The Bucs purposefully moved slowly with the QB during his rookie season, taking care to simplify game plans, to largely remove protection calls from his to-do list. They did not want to overload him with information and did not want him to be paralyzed on Sunday. Mike Bajakian, the Bucs' quarterback coach, spent extra hours with Winston on the field after practices, walking through plays over and over, verbalizing no-huddle calls, drilling his most vital subject. The focus was on the mental before the physical.
He met our expectations. I know it's difficult for the outside world to feel that way, but when I hear people say, 'You must be happy he exceeded your expectations off the field,' he really didn't. Jason Licht
After that opening stretch of four games, the impact of the lessons became more apparent. In the last 12 games of the season, Winston threw just eight more interceptions -- and 16 touchdown passes. The team was in contention for a wild-card spot going into the final month of the season, until a knee injury to Vincent Jackson, among other things, slowed the team and succumbed them to a four-game losing streak.
"I see a guy that made really, really good progress last year," said one general manager whose team faced Winston last year. "You saw solid-to-significant progress. It looked like he grew up and matured as a person quicker than a lot of people thought he would. I think he'll continue to progress."
The first sign of more progress is plainly visible: Winston dropped nearly 20 pounds since last season, when he played with a noticeable belly and what, at times, looked like a plodding gait out of the pocket. Bajakian said Winston knew even before the 2015 season ended that he had to work on his fitness. They had spoken about the need to be durable, to be able to play at a high level consistently during a long season. Because Winston was so much more proficient in the mental parts of the game after a season in it, the Bucs wanted him to focus on the physical. The point was driven home, Winston said, when he joined the game's best players in Hawaii.
"When I went to the Pro Bowl and I saw Russell Wilson and Teddy Bridgewater and even Eli Manning, all those guys -- they were in good shape, they were fit, they didn't have much body fat," Winston said. "I took it upon myself to be more like them, to get better. I don't feel like I had any limitations -- I just feel like the more in shape you are, the better you play. Any way you can invest in yourself to make you play better is a good thing."
With the late-night eating banished by his trainer, who put Winston through two-a-day workouts, and the baby fat gone, so too are some of the reins on Winston. While the defensive-minded Smith might have preferred a more conservative style of offense, it is obvious that if the Bucs are to make progress in the NFC South, it will be with Winston as the centerpiece. Proven receiver depth behind Mike Evans and Jackson is a concern. But during joint practices this summer between the Bucs and Jaguars, Winston's former college teammate, Jags 2016 first-round pick Jalen Ramsey, said the quarterback was like an extra coach on the field because of how well he communicates with his players. The Bucs are looking to take advantage of that. Winston has increased responsibility for play calls this season. Also, Koetter wants to run more no-huddle -- that's what jump-started Winston's game Sunday, and it's another reason why Winston's fitness was so important.
Koetter wants a downfield attack, the better to take advantage of a weapon like Evans -- who, at 6-foot-5 and 231 pounds, presents a formidable deep target for Winston. Winston, Bajakian and Koetter all voice the party line -- that the first priority is to take care of the ball, to limit turnovers as Winston did in the second half of last season. But they are walking a razor's edge, trying to balance the fear of turnovers with the dynamic playmaking that Winston put on display in the Bucs' third preseason game, when he scrambled out of the pocket on third down to set up a 3-yard touchdown pass to RB Charles Sims in the first quarter, and then tossed a majestic 34-yard touchdown pass to Evans in the second quarter.
In the first game of the regular season, at least, the Bucs seemed to find the balance. Winston launched two beautiful second-half touchdown passes: a 30-yarder to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and a 45-yarder to Evans.
"I think Jameis has a gunslinger mentality, which is good," Koetter said. "I like that about Jameis. But I also think there's times when you've got to scale it back and take the easy plays. We've got to improve our deep ball to give Mike more chances down the field. It's a fine line. You don't want to coach it out of him all the way. Some of the plays, I'm going, 'Agggghhhh ... Oh, great play!' Because he can fit them in there sometimes. We've got to be careful with that. We don't want to turn Jameis into Captain Checkdown. As long as he can say what he saw and why he did it -- and he's great at that, he can really see the field -- then it's fine."
When Winston was leaving FSU, the NFL.com scouting report noted that he had a big arm by pro standards, but also had this to say: "Will throw into impossible windows rather than taking safe throw underneath."
In training camp, Winston worked on the intermediate throws that were considered his weakness at FSU. But even on one oppressively humid morning, it was the bombs that delighted the fans who gathered despite an approaching storm. Later, in a noisy lounge where a chef was whipping up smoothies for players, Winston rattled off the same list of subtleties his coaches talked to him about improving -- his dropbacks, his movement in the pocket to avoid pass rushers, his stride on throws -- for him to elevate his game to the upper echelon of passers.
Winston's completion percentage in 2015 was 58.3 percent, ranking Winston No. 33 of 37 quarterbacks who started at least six games (behind him were Johnny Manziel, Nick Foles, Ryan Mallett and Andrew Luck). But it is the throws -- the big ones -- that almost certainly will define Winston's second season and beyond. When Smith was fired, Koetter got the job in large part because of what he already had gotten out of Winston and what the Bucs hope the continuity will provide for the QB, who is still just 22 years old.
What it has given Winston already this year is a wide-eyed excitement for Koetter's demand that they be a deep-ball offense.
"I love it," Winston said. "I just love Coach Koetter's offense. I have to be a good game manager for us to be able to win games. I like having a gunslinger mentality, though, because I'm not afraid to make any throw. There are some throws I should not make. Dirk has helped me with that, telling me consistently to check the ball down, making me aware of down-and-distances and what do we need, not just what I need. I'll make good plays, but he always tells me to make sure you go through your reads."
All the metrics and film had told the Bucs that Winston could do all of that. What they had to wait to know was what was most in question: how he would carry himself, how the time at FSU might have changed him, what the scrutiny that accompanies his job would expose and highlight.
When the Bucs were preparing to draft Winston, they spoke, of course, to Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher. He told them of Winston's passion for the game. But every coach says that of players he is trying to boost. For Koetter to truly believe it, he had to see it up close. He had to experience a season with the quarterback.
Koetter says now it has been a surprise to him, how immersed Winston is in football, how naturally at ease he is with the responsibilities of his job -- from schmoozing with suite holders to signing autographs for a clutch of children waiting after a sweltering practice to encouraging his teammates during another forgettable drill.
A window into Winston's passion was provided when Showtime, which is following FSU for the 2016 season, released a snippet of Winston's fiery halftime remarks to the Seminoles during their season-opening comeback win over Ole Miss. With his alma mater trailing 28-13, Winston, his arm gripping a white board, his eyes widening, offered scant praise for the wide receivers, running back and quarterback before angrily lashing into the offensive line. It was riveting, and it was a slice of what people around the Buccaneers have seen, too. The 'Noles went on to outscore the Rebels 32-6 after the break, winning the game going away.
"He is probably the best natural leader I've been around," Bajakian said. "I've dealt with a lot of college-aged guys. He is still a college-aged guy. He understands people. He is very perceptive, very observant; he sees things. Whether it is body language or things coming up, he sees it and reacts appropriately to it and says, 'That guy needs a pat on the butt,' or, 'That guy needs to be pushed a little more.' He's not afraid to do it. The No. 1 thing that makes him a good leader is he wants to win. He knows, to do that, he's got to get the most out of the guys around him."
Back inside the empty dome in August, Winston seemed to know his teammates needed extra encouragement to get through this odd practice, so with each break, he encouraged his offensive linemen and patted the shoulders of his receivers. The Bucs are expected to break ground on an indoor practice facility at their Tampa headquarters later this year, so these sleepy sessions will soon go the way of the old creamsicle uniforms -- all part of the plan, along with the stadium improvements, for the Bucs to keep pace with the rest of the NFL.
As the rain slid down the outside walls of this outdated ballpark and the practice drew near its close, Winston stepped back from the line of scrimmage so the second team could have a turn. He turned to consult with Evans about a route he had just run, drawing in the air where he wanted Evans to go.
After four decades and one drama-laden draft pick, the Bucs might finally be on the cusp of catching up with the league leaders in the most important franchise building block of all.
"Jameis Winston," said a ballpark security guard, watching from an outfield tunnel. "There he is."