Playoffs or bust for Jameis Winston in Year 3?

Eric Adelson
Columnist

TAMPA – Four-year-old Kalli ran so quickly toward the red temporary fence that she nearly fell through it. She carried a souvenir football that she wanted signed by Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. Oh, and she wanted a photo as well.

“I want a picture,” she cried.

Winston signed her football and then moved away, ushered along by other selfie-seekers (including one from the media who had to be shooed away). Kalli chased after him, yelling, “What about my picture!” Winston didn’t seem to hear.

It was loud at Bucs training camp on Friday. The stands were full, despite the unyielding morning heat and the fact that it was a weekday. The HBO Hard Knocks film crew hustled around everywhere. A DJ played Billie Jean and other favorites. The mammoth Bucs flag, so huge that its unfurling in the breeze can be audible everywhere on the premises, lorded over the scene. Hard-hat workers traipsed across the roof of a training facility under construction. Everywhere there was energy.

This is a long ways from the December day in 2014 when the Bucs fell to 2-13 with a 20-3 loss to the Packers. The embarrassment of the score paled next to the sound of a horde of Green Bay fans cheering in Raymond James Stadium as the clock wound down. Tampa Bay fell to 0-7 at home that afternoon.

The difference from then to now is more or less one person: Winston, who went to the Bucs first overall in 2015 and now is expected to have a third season that vaults him among the league’s elite. During Friday’s practice, star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy accidently bumped into Winston and joked that he “almost teared up going to the next rep.”

“Three is the franchise,” he said, referring to Winston’s number. “Forget 93, forget 13, 11 and one – I don’t know what number [DeSean Jackson] is going to be on any given day – 91, 98, 54, 58. Three, three is the one.”

Three is the franchise, on an off the field. “I’ve never met someone like Jameis before,” Hard Knocks director Matt Dissinger said recently. I’ve never met a guy as charismatic as he is who plays quarterback since I’ve been doing Hard Knocks..”

The charisma is subtle on a day like this. His answers in news conferences are bland – he said “strive for perfection” three times in one 10-minute scrum – but his personality shows up a little bit in the way he whips his helmet around to look at a teammate or juts his chin out when he sees a familiar face in the stands.

But by now every fan has seen it at some point, most memorably at halftime of a Florida State game last season, when Showtime cameras caught him shouting at his former teammates: “We some dogs! We ain’t no puppies!” It was the perfect bland of goofball and motivational, and that’s who Winston is – serious enough to be a leader and corny enough to be a teammate.

In Mike Evans, Jameis Winston has a weapon to take his game – and the Bucs – to another level. (AP)

For more than a few around the country, the sexual assault allegations and lawsuit against him from his time at Florida State – settled in court last December – won’t ever fade from view. But for many others, Winston’s two seasons of professional behavior have proven a point about his maturity. The question now is whether he can truly become an NFL star. And that answer is coming soon.

The optimistic view is pretty easy: He has Mike Evans, who is already one of the league’s elite receivers. He now has DeSean Jackson, who is good for 1,000 yards even when he has a mediocre quarterback. He has a couple of strong tight ends in Cameron Brate and rookie O.J. Howard. And he has coach Dirk Koetter, an offensive mind who was elevated to replace Lovie Smith in large part because he clicked with the quarterback.

“Tom Brady, [39]; Drew Brees, [38]; Matt Ryan, 32; Jameis Winston, 23,” the coach said today. “He’s going to get better. I don’t know how much this year, or how much next year, but he is going to get better.”

The pessimistic view is harder to imagine unless you look across the state of Florida to the Jaguars. A year ago, Blake Bortles was in a similar position. He was a rising star, entering Year 3 after a promising sophomore season. He had a promising young receiving corps, too: Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marquise Lee, Julius Thomas. And it turned into misery. The Jags couldn’t run the ball, and couldn’t block. Bortles suffered some injuries and looked completely addled.

Can it happen here? Well, maybe.

The Jags’ failures started up front, as they couldn’t get a running game going behind an unproven offensive line. The Bucs’ biggest question marks are in the same places. They have Doug Martin, Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims. These are good options, but nothing a defense has to lose sleep over. And the offensive line? Pro Football Focus ranks them 30th in the league.

Now add a Winston flaw that still lurks in the minds of anyone who has watched him consistently: He sometimes tries for the home-run play. He threw more interceptions and took more sacks in Year 2 then he did in Year 1. That in itself is nothing alarming, but now the expectations are higher and the receiving depth is greater. In Year 2, the playoffs would have been a nice surprise; in Year 3, anything less will be a downer.

To Winston’s credit, he’s been a diligent student from before his first Bucs training camp. He studies the playbook arduously, and now he should have an almost-second-nature sense of it. But with the full route tree, and the extra weapons, comes a surfeit of options. He’s no longer eating what’s served to him; he’s at the buffet. Will he choose wisely?

Florida State fans remember his narrowed gaze in games – “Jameis Squint-ston” – but now the bigger worry is if his eyes get too wide.

For now, the sunniness persists. Winston is doing everything right under the huge Bucs flag, including where young Kalli is concerned. She finally caught up to Winston, and he eagerly flashed a smile for posterity.

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