TAMPA — When Bruce Arians took over as coach this year, his first order of business was to make it clear that the Bucs are Jameis Winston’s team.
Most franchise quarterbacks normally don’t need that stamp of approval from the coach, but Winston’s tenure has been anything but normal.
Still, in Tampa Bay, football is king. And the Bucs have the longest history of any team in the market, and with it, the deepest connection to fans. Past players are revered, especially those who were part of the 2002 season’s Super Bowl-winning team.
Even with the Bucs’ seven last-place division finishes over the past eight seasons, being a team’s franchise quarterback should be enough to be considered the face of Tampa Bay sports.
Winston’s off-field issues — which include allegations of sexual assault at Florida State and a three-game suspension last season for violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy over allegations he groped an Uber driver — are well-documented.
Winston is immensely talented. He can be very engaging. He’s great with kids at his community events. In 2017 he started a foundation to help kids in financial need. At times on the field, it seems as if he’s on the verge of greatness.
But after four years of watching Winston play for the Bucs — sometimes while trying to hide our eyes — we still don’t know how good he can be. The fans who go to Raymond James Stadium wearing his jersey — more wear his No. 3 than any other current player’s — hope he can reach another level while still with the Bucs.
After the Bucs drafted Winston first overall in 2015, he and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy were the faces of the Bucs. With the Bucs releasing McCoy this offseason, there’s no question who the face is now.
Winston does some things so well. He has an engaging smile. Though he has toned down some of his on-field behavior — he’s no longer eating W’s in pregame huddles — his vigor for the game is always noticeable.
He has cut down on his fumbles. Reducing his interceptions is on Arians’ to-do list. And more than anything, fans want to see him lead the Bucs to the postseason.
Winston leads an exciting offense, one that racks up passing yards with any offense in the NFL, but quarterbacks are paid to win. This year Winston is being paid $20.9 million in the final year of his rookie contract.
Winston can be polarizing. A lot of quarterbacks are, especially until they lead their team to the Super Bowl. He already has thrown more touchdown passes than anyone in Bucs history, and he will likely break Vinny Testaverde’s team career passing-yards mark this year.
Like him or not, you’re watching him.
More is expected of him, and should be considering his draft spot, which represented the promise of a new Bucs era. The wins still haven’t come.
But if you’re a Bucs fan — and a fan of sports in Tampa Bay — Winston’s is the face you’re looking to now to lead the team back to respectability.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieinheYard