Bucs’ Jameis Winston knows what’s at stake this season – ‘This is the year’

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Kimberley A. Martin
·Senior NFL writer
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TAMPA, Fla. — The conversation halts every few feet.

From the moment his cleats hit the red clay-colored pavement, Jameis Winston was besieged by one request after another.

They want to chat.

Or an autograph.

Or a picture.

They all want a glimpse of the quarterback. The face of the franchise. The Bucs’ leader.

One young man interrupts Winston to ask if he’s ever thrown a football over “Pike House,” the campus home to Florida State’s Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. The former Heisman Trophy-winner and BCS national champion acknowledges the feat of strength while scrawling his name on the back of a child’s jersey.

TAMPA, FLORIDA - AUGUST 16: Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers makes a call at the line against the Miami Dolphins in the first quarter during the preseason game at Raymond James Stadium on August 16, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Jameis Winston enters this season under his third head coach since he was drafted in 2015. (Getty Images)

The gauntlet of fans begins just beyond the doors of the team’s indoor practice facility and resumes once Winston trudges across the outdoor football field.

His voice trails off in mid-sentence. His body veers in another direction without warning. “I’m sorry,” he says, politely pausing the discussion at hand.

Practice ended almost an hour ago, but the quarterback’s duties are far from over.

“He’s the man of the people,” jokes a public relations staffer.

Despite the adulation, this is a make-or-break season for Winston, both in Tampa Bay and for his career. Not only is the former No. 1 overall pick in the final year of his rookie deal, but failure to take the next step could relegate him to the long list of former first-round quarterbacks who never realized their vast potential.

Despite the promise Winston showed his rookie season, Lovie Smith was fired after the team finished 6-10. Dirk Koetter lost his job after last season trying to raise Winston’s mistake-prone game to the next level. Now, the Bucs have entrusted him to Bruce Arians, a celebrated quarterback whisperer.

In other words, Winston has run out of second chances.

“He feels bad that they didn’t win and his coach got fired. I can tell,” Arians told Yahoo Sports, noting the pressure Winston feels to live up to the hype of being a No. 1 pick. “Oh, yeah. There’s no doubt. I saw it with Tim Couch. Same thing here.”

For all of the uncertainty surrounding Winston's future, there is no question where his heart lies. Or what he expects of himself.

Fatherhood, he says, has changed him. So has his fiancée, with an upcoming wedding next year.

Seemingly more mature, Winston appears at peace — with himself and where he stands within the organization. No longer is he motivated solely by his love for the game. Now, he's focused on "providing and protecting a family" — on and off the field.

Football is "kind of my life," Winston says, in between autograph signings following the first of two joint practices with the Miami Dolphins. "Because I’ve got people that I’ve really gotta feed now. And as far as my teammates, I’ve gotta provide for them too.”

Those within the facility speak glowingly of Winston's growth, both as a person and a football player — a much-needed change that couldn't have come at a better time for the franchise. The Bucs have Arians, a revamped staff that includes quarterback guru Tom Moore and genuine optimism about what lies ahead.

But the organization's 2019 season — and franchise direction — hinges on the decision-making of a 21-33 NFL starter with more than his share of suspensions and disappointment.

“All my life I’ve been a winner. And this is the year," Winston told Yahoo Sports. “This is the year that I can put a stake in the ground and move forward.”

For all of his obvious gifts, his collegiate accolades, and his flashes of NFL upside, Winston remains one of the league’s most polarizing players. He’s only 25, yet the top pick in 2015 has yet to convince the masses that he’s worth believing in.

But within the confines of the Bucs' building, the faith in Winston is as thick as the warm, muggy air that envelops the region during the rain-soaked summer months.

“I love the Jameis I know," said Byron Leftwich, Winston's new offensive coordinator and former NFL starting quarterback. “The Jameis I know is a confident kid who loves the game of football, who — from what I know — is a great dude, a good man, to be honest with you. That’s my eyes, what I see, my perception. I can’t control anyone else’s perceptions.”

After four pro seasons — and a litany of off-field controversies dating back to his college days at Florida State — Winston is still an unproven commodity in the NFL, an unknown with enviable tools and obvious potential. But untapped potential can be characterized as a liability and patience can soon run thin, especially with a deep and promising crop of college quarterbacks expected to be draft-eligible next spring.

Winston is playing on a fifth-year team option that will pay him almost $21 million this season. The expectations are higher than they've ever been. And he's running out of time to prove he can be the face of a franchise on the rise.

And, deep down, he knows it.

This is it.

This is his moment.

It has to be.

"I’m not even really into proving things and expectations. I’m into action," said Winston, who threw for 4,042 passing yards as a rookie, followed by 4,090 yards in 2016, the last time he started all 16 games. “It’s time. What better time is it than now?"

Time to shine

The former Florida State star acknowledged that "stats don't even matter" against the backdrop of wins and losses. And since 2015, the year Tampa Bay drafted Winston over Oregon phenom Marcus Mariota, the Bucs are 25-39.

Something has to change. And soon.

"All I want to do is win games and play well," Winston said, as his lips curl into a boyish grin. "And then nobody can’t say anything."

Much of the criticism lies in his mechanics and propensity for turnovers. He has 88 career touchdowns, but also 58 interceptions in 56 games. He also has lost 18 fumbles, leading the league in that category in 2016 (six) and 2017 (seven).

Winston also had two head coaches over the past four seasons, and now he's working under a third in Year 5. But this revamped Bucs staff, lead by Arians, believes it has the right personnel and chemistry to get the most out of their starter. There's a synergy surrounding Winston, with Arians, Leftwich, Moore (who initially was brought on to be a consultant for the spring and summer but will remain on staff this season) and new quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen operating in lockstep — daily collaboration that Winston says he is grateful for their expertise and tutelage.

“Byron, he’s the player," Winston said of Leftwich, who played 10 seasons in the NFL before joining Arians' Arizona staff as a coaching intern in 2016. "He’s seeing everything from a player’s standpoint. He’s been there, he’s been in this offense, so he’s more on the execution.

“Clyde is on execution and details, so he’s worried about my mechanics, my technique.

“Coach Moore and B.A., they’re like the overlookers — they’re worried about scenarios and situational football and just helping me on different checks, things that most likely will end up [happening in a game] — if I get this, go here."

Now, it's up to Winston to prove that he's worth keeping beyond this season.

TAMPA, FL - AUG 07: Quarterback Jameis Winston (3) listens to Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Training Camp on August 07, 2019 at the AdventHealth Training Center at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich has a high view of QB Jameis Winston: "I don’t think he’s ever played bad football," Leftwich said. "That’s the misconception." (Getty Images)

‘Just play quarterback’

The same excuses no longer apply. The Bucs have assembled the best staff, in their opinion. Their roster is retooled. And their revamped defense, which allowed 29 points per game last season (sixth-worse in the league), is expected to be better under new coordinator and former Jets head coach Todd Bowles.

But in order for the Bucs — who have finished 5-11 the past two seasons — to be a legitimate contender in the NFC South, Winston has to be the best he has ever been. His coaches, however, insist the former No. 1 pick isn't far off from where he needs to be.

"This is not a situation where we all have to put our heads together and fix Jameis. This kid don’t need fixing," said Leftwich, who will call the offensive plays this season. "I think I can help him play better football. That’s all I’m trying to do. I don’t think he’s ever played bad football. That’s the misconception."

Leftwich chuckled as he leaned back in his office chair.

"You look at what this kid did his first year in the league — it’s all-time great, right?" he said of Winston, who became the first NFL quarterback to eclipse 4,000 passing yards in each of his first two seasons. "Look what he did in the beginning. You didn’t get the win-loss record that you wanted, but being in that position, a lot goes into winning football games.”

Arians saw promise in Winston more than a decade ago when the young quarterback was a ninth-grader participating in one of Arians’ camps. Years later, Winston was a selling point in coaxing the Bucs head coach out of a year-long retirement.

“I just believe in him. And I think a lot of times, that’s all they need,” Arians said. “One thing I love about Jameis is he takes responsibility. … And he wants to win. That’s all you can ask.

“And nobody’s going to ever outwork him,” Arians adds, noting that Winston meets assistant strength coach and conditioning coach Maral “M.J.” Javadifar every day at 5:15 a.m. “He’s here before I get out of bed.”

Finally healthy (Winston admitted playing through a shoulder injury in 2017 “because I love football … But at the end of the day, what you put on film is what you put on film.”) and no longer looking over his shoulder in the quarterbacks room, the stage is set for Winston to be the player this franchise needs. But the coaching staff has cautioned Winston against focusing on the big picture instead of the task at hand.

“Just play quarterback,” Arians said. “He’s a natural-born, rah-rah leader. But just be the quarterback. You don’t have to be the face of the franchise. That’ll take care of itself.”

While Winston downplays the pressure he feels heading into this make-or-break year, it’s evident that he fully comprehends the weight of responsibility that rests on his shoulders.

“To whom much is given, much is required,” he said. ”But as far as pressure, I dreamed of this. I dreamed of being a No. 1 pick. I dreamed of winning the Heisman Trophy. I dreamed of being the face of a franchise. So this is something that I’ve hoped for my entire life. And a lot comes with that.”

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