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Rick Stroud, Greg Auman and Matt Baker

Players, coaches say Winston is now the leader of the Bucs

Bucs coach Lovie Smith said Jameis Winston earned his new status with near perfect play the past three games.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Bucs coach Lovie Smith said Jameis Winston earned his new status with near perfect play the past three games.

4

November

Through his passion and performance, between the emotional pre-game speech and efficient game-winning drive in overtime in a 23-20 win against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome last Sunday, it happened.

Jameis Winston is now the leader of the Bucs.

“We’re going to go where he wants us to go,’’ center Joe Hawley said. “That’s the NFL for you, it’s all about having a good quarterback. He’s improving each week and we’re ready to follow.’’

Veteran Logan Mankins, a six-time Pro Bowl guard and perhaps the Bucs’ most respected player, says the team is completely now behind their kid quarterback.

“He’s exciting,’’ Mankins said. “He’s making a lot of plays and he seems to be improving every week. That’s all we can ask for. It doesn’t matter if he’s a rookie or not. He’s going to be the leader and we’ll go with him and we love playing for him, we love blocking for him. He does some things that really excites us and gets us going.’’

General manager Jason Licht is not surprised Winston took over the leadership so quickly. “He’s rare,’’ Licht said. “He’s a rare leader.’’

Bucs coach Lovie Smith said Winston earned his new status with near perfect play the past three games in which Winston has passed for 683 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions while rushing for another score.

“Pre-game speeches, I think they can only go so far,’’ coach Lovie Smith said. “But what you follow is when you see someone by his play. And that’s what Jameis is doing as much as anything.’’

The peaks and valleys play Winston displayed early in the season has leveled off into a winning performance each Sunday. The Bucs have averaged nearly 30 points per game the past three weeks and Winston is a big reason why.

“Jameis’ competitive spirit showed up more so in this game than it has,’’ offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “When we drafted Jameis and we were doing our homework and talking to (Florida State coach) Jimbo (Fisher), they told us this was Jameis. Jameis drove us down during that overtime. Those plays he was making on third down and throughout the game with his feet…and the competitive plays were fantastic.’’

Bucs players knew Winston had taken control of the leadership of the team when he gathered them in a huddle following warmups Sunday and made an emotional plea to win the game and play for rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander, who was playing despite learning two days earlier his teenage brother had been murdered during an argument near the family’s home in Alabama.

“When our brother is down, another one of our brothers step up and rise!’’ Winston said. “Kwon Alexander come here.’’

Alexander removed his helmet and stepped forward. “We’ve got a brother in pain,'' Winston said. "Pain guys! We’ve got a brother who is in pain. Are we our brother’s keeper? Are we our brother’s keeper? Depend on the man next to you! Let’s go out there and fight! Let’s go out there and win the battle! Let’s do it guys! Family on three.’’

Winston then sprinted off the field and was the first to the locker room, greeting each player with a hug at the door.

“We’ve seen it on TV when he was at Florida State,’’ Hawley said. “That’s the kind of guy he is. You can tell when he talks, it’s really genuine, from the heart and really emotional. And when a guy talks like that, you really respect it. He’s a great leader, he’s really competitive and he just continues to grow.’’

Smith said leading the overtime drive provided more belief in the Bucs quarterback.

"I think as a quarterback, you get into a situation where it's tied or you're behind, you need to go on a drive,'' Smith said. "For our team to see Jameis lead us  on that did an awful lot. We've talked about him moving more and more into that role. Every quarterback on every team has to be one  of the primary leaders and we're seeing that.''