Jameis Winston will have to earn back starting QB job

Eric Adelson
Columnist

TAMPA, Fla. — Jameis Winston will have to earn it.

The former No. 1 quarterback with the iconic smile showed nary a grin during a news conference at the opening of Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp on Thursday. His coach, Dirk Koetter, was just as dour. 

“It’s time for Jameis to lead from the rear,” he said.

The former Heisman Trophy winner took reps with the first, second and third teams on Thursday. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the likely starter in the wake of Winston’s three-game suspension for a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Ryan Griffin, who the team likes, is the backup. Asked if Winston would definitely return to the starter’s job upon his return, Koetter said, “Week 4 is a long ways away.”

Winston apologized to the team on Wednesday. He said they asked no questions about the groping incident in 2016 that led to his suspension (which is surprising, if true). He said, “They had my back all the way.” He certainly appeared earnest, if not humbled. He said of being a new father: “I’m gonna have to teach that man how to respect women.”

Yet it’s still unclear what he has taught the man in the mirror about how to respect women. It’s still unclear what exactly he’s learned, other than not to do that again. 

“I just learned you can’t put yourself in that situation,” Winston said. “This happened after my rookie year. I think I’ve made a lot of positive changes since.”

One of those, according to a statement he’s made, is the decision to eliminate alcohol from his life. That is certainly healthy. But the bigger question is whether he can take full responsibility for his actions. Being committed to avoiding “that situation” is one thing; owning what you’ve done is another. 

Jameis Winston has been the focal point for all the wrong reasons as the Buccaneers open training camp. (AP)

“I know that I’m a positive influence,” Winston said. “I have to live up to the standard that I hold myself to.”

What is that standard? Is it higher than the one he failed to live up to before? In his defense, he said he has “hard work” to do to regain the trust of the fans. But he also said this: “My main goal is to be a great person, a great teammate and a great leader, every single day. I think I’ve done that.”

He hasn’t.

This is the problem that’s finally come home to roost for the Bucs: Winston was not mature enough to be a franchise quarterback coming out of Florida State. It was clear to a lot of people; it was not sufficiently clear to the Bucs. (Or perhaps they ignored it.) This isn’t to say he can never be more mature, or that he hasn’t matured in any way. This is to say that the risk of handing the keys to a rookie quarterback – which always exists – was even higher with Winston. If he was heady enough to take the reins of a professional franchise, he would have reckoned with his alcohol use long ago. Instead he’s doing it now, and the Bucs risk being 0-3 to start this season because of it. It’s not a leap to think that jobs will be lost because of it – and not just Winston’s job.

“I think your team has a lot of leaders,” Koetter said. “And being a leader starts with being a leader of yourself.”

In college, there is a safety net if you’re not a leader of yourself. Here, there isn’t. Winston all but pleaded on Thursday that he didn’t want to be a distraction. Well, at the first day of training camp, his head coach got exactly one question about anything other than Winston’s troubles.

Koetter was asked about Winston’s prior reputation as a “model citizen” since he arrived in Tampa. He didn’t really answer the question. How could he? Yes, Winston has been active in the community and generous with children. But saying he’s a model citizen is an affront to the actual model citizens in his locker room. It’s not even known what Winston has promised or discussed with the head coach since the suspension was decided. Koetter was asked if he got an apology from the quarterback. He paused. “Conversations between Jameis and I should stay between Jameis and me,” he said.

The change from last year’s opening of camp was stark. The Bucs were a dark horse pick in 2017 to make the playoffs and maybe go further than that. HBO’s “Hard Knocks” was here, and Winston drew raves for his charisma. Veteran defensive end Gerald McCoy announced “3 is the one” as a passing of the torch to Winston as the franchise. Winston was ebullient, large and in charge. 

On Thursday he was far less demonstrative on the field. He wasn’t bouncing through reps, barking at receivers. He was just another passer on just another 5-11 team. None of the murals on the stadium depicts him this year. 

That’s how it has to be. Winston has to earn what was originally handed to him. It’s not clear he can; a convincing win or two from Fitzpatrick changes the discussion (which Koetter is right to allow for). The Bucs can and probably should draft another quarterback next spring, no matter what happens this fall. Fitzpatrick is 35.

After Winston got in trouble for sexual assault allegations at Florida State, the Seminoles’ communications staff protected him in group interviews by announcing “football questions only.” It was a part of Winston’s large umbrella, which he carried with him here.

Now the non-football questions are football questions. 

Does he have the answers?

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