TAMPA — Shortly after he was drafted a year ago, Jameis Winston got some advice from defensive tackle Gerald McCoy: Just be a rookie and don't try to turn the franchise around by yourself in the first year.
But by the time the Bucs upset the Falcons in Atlanta on Nov. 1, ignited by Winston's emotional pregame speech, it was clear teammates would follow the quarterback out of the locker room and beyond.
"It's a great feeling because I know I have the platform and I know all the guys are watching me and I want them to watch me because I know my main goal is to get better every single day," Winston said. "The quarterback is always going to be the focus of everything."
Meanwhile, a perception grew that McCoy, a four-time Pro Bowl player and theretofore face of the franchise, wasn't comfortable with all of the attention suddenly thrust on Winston.
But McCoy says nothing was further from the truth. All he wanted to do was take the pressure off Winston. As the third overall pick in 2010, whose first two seasons ended on injured reserve, McCoy knows how it feels to be swallowed by expectations.
It wasn't much different than the Bucs' decision to keep Winston's face off the four corners of Raymond James Stadium as a rookie.
"We were missing a franchise quarterback. Every team needs that guy," McCoy said recently. "I believe very early on Jameis Winston was the guy. So I said he will, after this year, maybe sooner, be that guy. When it came about sooner than everybody expected, I think the misperception was 'Jameis is getting all the publicity now, Gerald is so used to being the guy, he can't handle it.'
"I was injured my first two years. There was a time when I was considered a bust. I had to work my way out of that to even be considered a perennial Pro Bowler. Another thing people miss is if we do have a franchise quarterback and who is getting a lot of publicity, something tells me he's doing something associated with winning. So why on Earth would a person who has been here losing for six seasons not want that to be? That does not make sense to me.
"I re-signed with this team because I believe we can win. Now we have the piece to do that and I want to take issue with it?"
McCoy and Winston have never spoken about the perceived schism. There was no need. McCoy was supportive of Winston since the day he became the first overall pick from Florida State.
"I met his parents and his family and told them, 'I'm going to take care of your son. You don't have to worry about him while he's here in Tampa,' " McCoy said. "I did that because I know the pressure that comes with being a first-round pick."
Winston started slowly last season. His first NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown and he threw seven picks in his first four games. But he finished strong, passing for 4,042 yards with 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions while rushing for six scores.
As he did as a rookie, Winston likely plans to stand at the door at One Buc Place and greet every player as they report to training camp today. The Bucs are a young team galvanized behind the leadership of their precocious quarterback.
"I know Jameis Winston is my favorite teammate I've ever approached the game with," receiver Kenny Bell said. "The attitude he brings every single day, his approach to the game, his dedication to greatness, the guy just impresses. There's no question about it. I love playing with the guy."
So does McCoy and other leaders such as Vincent Jackson, Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. It's Winston's team — and his time.
"I said in his second year, Jameis Winston will be the NFL MVP and people destroyed me for that," McCoy said. "You know why I said that? Because I truly believe in this kid that much."