TAMPA — Through his passion and performance, between the emotional pre-game speech and efficient winning drive in overtime in a 23-20 win against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome on 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, said the team is now completely behind its 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 excite us and gets us going."
General manager Jason Licht is not surprised that Winston has taken over the leadership so quickly.
"He's rare," Licht said. "He's a rare leader."
Coach Lovie Smith said Winston earned his new status with near perfect play the past three games, in which he has passed for 683 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions while rushing for another score.
"Pregame speeches, I think they can only go so far," 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 Winston displayed early in the season have leveled off into strong performances each Sunday. The Bucs have averaged nearly 30 points the past three weeks, and Winston is a big reason why.
"Jameis' competitive spirit showed up more so in (Sunday's) game than it has," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "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 the 21-year-old had taken control of the leadership when he gathered them in a huddle after 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 that his teenage brother had been killed during an argument near the family's home in Alabama.
"When our brother is down, another one of our brothers steps 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.
"You can tell when he talks, it's really genuine, from the heart and really emotional," Hawley said. "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."
Licht said he and Smith watched closely as Winston approached every Florida State player in warmups before the Rose Bowl in January. "Everybody we talked to, that's the first thing they said. 'We've never had a leader like this,' " Licht said. "They said, 'Since Derrick Brooks, we've never had a leader like this.'
"When I was with the Patriots, it was in our scouting manual developed by Bill Belichick and probably passed down from Bill Parcells, but the quarterback has to be the hardest worker on the team. It's not hyperbole. He really is."
Smith said leading the overtime drive provided more belief in his 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."
Winston credited his teammates for their extraordinary effort Sunday.
"I think everybody just wanted that win so bad," he said. "When you look at that film and you look at the sheer want-to and you look at the competitiveness, you see a team that's just really ready to play."
And follow their rookie quarterback.