Last year’s No. 1 overall pick reflects on the lessons of his rookie season—from becoming a better leader and better quarterback to dealing with coaching changes to getting his body in shape so he’ll fit in at his next Pro Bowl
As the combine gets underway in Indianapolis today, let’s take a look back at last year’s first overall pick: quarterback Jameis Winston, who had much to prove with the Buccaneers in 2015. Knowing he’d likely play right away, Winston had to make the jump to a pro offense and be ready to make far more decisions at the line of scrimmage than he did at Florida State. He knew he’d have to cut down on his alarming rate of interceptions. He knew he’d have to prove himself to be a leader whom Tampa Bay could rely on. And, of course, there were also questions to be answered about the sexual assault allegations that followed him from college.
On the field, Winston’s rookie numbers were satisfactory. Here’s how he compared to the rookie seasons of the two quarterbacks who preceded him as first overall picks:
Winston: 58.3 percent accuracy, 4,042 yards, 22 touchdowns, 15 picks, 84.2 rating.
Andrew Luck (2012): 54.1 percent accuracy, 4,374 yards, 23 touchdowns, eight picks, 76.5 rating.
Cam Newton (2011): 60.0 percent accuracy, 4,051 yards, 21 touchdowns, 17 picks, 84.5 rating
Pretty similar, even though Winston probably entered the league on a lesser team than both Luck and Newton. Winston started poorly, with a bad game against Marcus Mariota’s Titans, had a four-pick debacle against Carolina, and then steadied his play to win four of six in midseason, including a five-touchdown-pass masterpiece against the Eagles. The sputtering offense, and a four-game losing streak to end the season, ultimately led to coach Lovie Smith’s firing—a move that shocked Winston.
Here’s how Winston, in his own words, looks back on his rookie season.
The biggest takeaway
Winston: “One important thing I learned: When you turn the ball over in the NFL, you don’t know when you are going to get that chance back. At Florida State, I knew that I was going to get that chance back, because we were one of the better teams in college football. We were going to get another chance, so that turnover wouldn’t kill us. Whereas in the NFL, everyone is good, so you never know when you are going to get that chance back. In the NFL, you have to take advantage of every opportunity that you get, and if you don’t, you’ll usually lose.”
Winston: “It was an easy transition for me because the veterans were so good to me, they just accepted me for who I was. Being that voice for a team, I think I am kind of the voice right now, but I still have a long way to go.
“We got closer together as a team around that Kwon Alexander situation [the rookie Bucs middle linebacker played Nov. 1 against Atlanta, two days after his brother was shot and killed]. We went through a lot, and that was a moment that I knew would bring our team together. I took advantage of that opportunity to let guys know that we have to get behind our brother, because he is in pain and we have to fight for one another. I think that helped us win that game. That was the first time I went in depth [vocally] on the field with the guys before a game. At the beginning of the season, Clinton McDonald was talking to the team, and then when he got injured, I became the main voice, because nobody else said anything. It was basically just me and Kwon in the huddle, and we were talking and trying to get guys pumped up about the game.
“One thing I always do in the huddle, pre-snap, is make eye contact. Just trying to see what is going on in their minds. When I step in that huddle, those guys just look at you. With me, there was no sign of nervousness. I was very confident. [Veterans] Logan Mankins and Vince [Jackson] made me confident. They allowed me to come in and be a voice, and they didn’t say, ‘No, don’t do that.’ They just allowed me to become a better player and leader.”
The education of a pro quarterback, from QB coach Mike Bajakian and then-coordinator Dirk Koetter
Winston: “I can’t thank coach Koetter and coach Bajakian enough for helping me develop as a pure passer. This is the first time in my career playing football that I worked on things to get better at during the season mechanically that I was actually able to use during games. Those guys put me to work every day.
“Quarterbacks show up 15 minutes before every practice, and we just do drills. We do footwork drills, high-knee crossovers and drops, karaoke on the line, keeping the ball up and pushed back. That was a struggle of mine … I always used to drop the ball [hold it low] while being in the pocket. It was just repetition of doing the right things, day after day. During our individual drills, we worked on intense things. It wasn’t just your typical team, where maybe they just throw it around and wait for the next period. Coach Bajakian has us working at all times. We repped so many things that they become habits.
“A lot of what we did was just developing good habits. When I woke up, average day, I came in about 5:45, ate breakfast, got in the hot tub, then went and watched film with the coaches, and we carried on our whole day and schedule as a team. And then at the end I would watch some more film and then leave. I got to dedicate the whole day to football. I had some of the best days of my life this year.”
On losing 10 games
Winston: “I wasn’t down. But I had to sit back and rethink some things. Everything just was happening so fast, to the point where the games were coming back-to-back-to-back. You didn’t have a chance to feel sorry for yourself, you just had to move on to the next game. After the [four-interception] Carolina game I thought, I’ve got to think about what am I doing. Try to change my routine. Four interceptions, that’s not me. I just had to sit back and relax. Because after that game I didn’t want to continue to do bad. I had seen how much potential our team had. We were trying to create an identity as an offense, and I felt like I was hurting the team by turning the ball over. My teammates didn’t really talk to me about it. I just took initiative to do it myself. On Monday usually you can come in at any time. I would be in on Monday at 6:30, get a lift in at 7, and then after that I would go up and meet with coach Bajakian and watch the film with him and get a jump-start on the next team.
“After the Carolina game, I said, ‘I’ve just gotta chill.’ I loved coming to work every day, and I loved being a leader. And I felt like there was no way to lead this team when I am the main cause for our failure, and that’s the way I viewed it—that I was the main cause for our failure early in the season. So I felt like I had to make a change in me.”
The lesson he’d teach rookie quarterbacks
Winston: “I would tell them to keep everything simple. When I first got into this league I tried to bring that mentality that every play is going to be a big play. But now I think that this play might be the play that determines the outcome of this game. I used to be a freelancer, out there playing and having fun, doing whatever, but I had to learn that this position … coach Bajakian said something to me after the Carolina game that stuck with me the whole season. He said, ‘When you look at the football, the NFL football, you see the NFL shield, and you see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers flag on the football. If you protect that flag, if you protect the football, only good things can happen. If you give this flag away to opposing teams, if the opposing team touches your flag more than you touch theirs, then there is no way you can be successful.’ ”
His favorite pass of the year
Winston: “I made a pass against Atlanta to Vincent Jackson. It was probably the perfect pass. It wasn’t even a touchdown. I can’t even describe it, we talk about goal-posting a throw, and goal-posting a throw means you’re throwing the ball right over the fingertips of a defender, so no matter what happens, they can’t stop the play, because you just threw the ball perfectly. Against the Falcons, it was a corner curl route and I threw it right over the defender’s fingertips [safety Ricardo Allen], and he caught and he had like a 40-yard gain. [It was 36 yards.]”
On the sexual assault accusations in college and handling the spotlight off the field
Winston: “In college, I was up under this microscope everywhere I went. I couldn’t go to class without somebody stalking me or asking me for something, an autograph or a picture. In the NFL, not only am I the face of a community, but people know my face. People are looking up to me basically as a springboard for the Tampa Bay community. Every time I go out and I have chance to make a difference or make someone smile, I try to do that to the best of my abilities. In college, I could try to do that, and no matter what, it would mean something, but everyone just wanted something from me. Give me that, Jameis, gimme, gimme, gimme. In the NFL, I can be myself, and everyone doesn’t have their hand out. In the NFL, I wasn’t the best player in the league. I just do what I do.”
Best lesson from his rookie year
Winston: “Something that coach Koetter taught me that really helped me with my whole game: Just do the simple things. I’m such a passionate player, I always want to make big plays and I always want to have excitement. It seems so cliché saying this, but do the simple things and you’ll be OK. Don’t overdo. It just sounds like, OK, it’s like reading the Bible. The Bible tells you from right and wrong and you do that and you will have a good life. But it’s really that easy: Make the simple decision. If you don’t get too over-hyped, if you just make smart decisions and do the right thing, the sky is the limit.”
On his life outside of football
Winston: “I have to opportunity to affect a community, I got an opportunity to change lives and give people a sense of hope. That’s something I like to do. That’s how I want to live my life—flying under the radar, affecting people, doing the right thing and just playing football.”
The lesson of Lovie Smith’s firing
Winston: “I’ve learned that you can never take stuff for granted. I thought that me and coach Lovie were going to be together for my whole career. You only can dream of that. But it didn’t happen. I have to support coach Koetter, and I’m happy that he is the coach instead of anybody else. But I am always going to keep in touch with coach Lovie because he is such a great man, and he gave me the opportunity to play. I don’t know anything about the business part of the game. I just go out there and I play.”
On what he learned at the Pro Bowl
Winston: “The most important thing I learned is I have to get my body in shape, because those men look good. Not just the other quarterbacks—everyone. Their bodies look good. But also, Russell Wilson’s preparation at the Pro Bowl. You know, it’s a relaxing event, and he is still doing everything the right way. He is the first one to the huddle, leading guys in stretches, running everywhere you go.”
On his offseason goals
Winston: “I want to work on my foot quickness. I believe I have good pocket presence, but you never can be too good with your feet, so I have to make sure my feet are quicker. Sometimes I get too wide in the pocket, and I need to keep my feet up under me and be a little smoother in the pocket. I need to improve everything, really, but I just have to get quicker.”
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