TAMPA – The start of training camp should be one of the best times of the year for Bucs fans, but the suspension of Jameis Winston has sucked some of the air out of the balloon.
On reporting day, as teams around the NFL headed back to work, several Bucs players were left to speak about Winston's off-field issues. Following the first practice Thursday, Winston stood in front of the backdrop with the team logo and spoke for 10 minutes about the bad decision he made more than two years ago that will result in his dismissal for the first three games.
Winston's mea culpa probably should've taken place before the Bucs arrived at training camp. And holding at another venue might have been a good idea.
Not to equate the behavior, but when Mike Vick plead guilty to Federal dogfighting charges, the Falcons wanted nothing to do with the announcement, which came at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta in Aug. 2007. The message was clear: this was a Vick problem, not a Falcons problem.
Of course, it's hard to separate Winston from the Bucs as easily. He's going to work every day at practice in training camp and play in the preseason games.
Even so, Winston has handed his position, reps and leadership of the offense to 35-year-old veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Winston was expected to dial down some of his hyjinx anyway. But coach Dirk Koetter has told him to lead from behind, which means taking a step back from the huddle and not being as vocal during practice.
Even so, Koetter says Winston has maintained relationships with teammates and still is a great leader.
"You guys see Jameis when he's out there being loud and talking in front of the team, but there's 24 hours in the day,'' Koetter said. "Jameis is an incredible teammate in what he says to guys one-on-one. He's a motivating guy. He was already doing that. As we sit here right now, we have other leaders on the team, I mentioned that (Friday). And we need those guys to be a little more vocal and be a little bit more out front. Because we're going to need those guys to be the out front guys those first games until things change.''
So who steps up?
The Bucs have no shortage of leaders, even if their spotlight has been dimmed by the ebullience of Winston: Mike Evans, Gerald McCoy, Kwon Alexander, Lavonte Daivid, Brent Grimes, Cameron Brate and others.
McCoy said Winston's situation won't be a distraction if the Bucs simply try not to look ahead and just string work days together.
"In order to keep it from being a distraction, we're going to put on shoulder pads tomorrow and practice,'' McCoy said. "We'll have meetings, we'll have a walk-through. We're going to go to sleep, we're going to do it again the next day and the next day until we play Miami. Then we're going to have off days. We'll do it again and again until we go to Tennessee. And we're going to keep doing it and doing it like we always have done. Regularly scheduled programming. It's the NFL. You've just got to keep playing.''
Then, most appropriately, McCoy added this: "It's a blessing to be here. It's a privilege, not a right.
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FAST START FOR EVANS: Mike Evans is a really good football player.
That may seem obvious for one of only three players to have 1,000 yards receiving each of the first four years to start his career. But he's off to a fast start in training camp. During a two-minute drill early in practice Saturday, he high-pointed a pass from Fitzpatrick on a fade route over Brent Grimes. He had several more highlight reel catches before the day ended.
Of course, Evans has done this before and his body has broken down. He's missed a couple days or weeks and then it takes him some time to get back. But for three days, Evans has been the best player on the football field.
"I want more catches. I want more everything,'' Evans said. "We're receivers. We're very dependent. But we can't get too down if things aren't going our way.''
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CAUTION WITH DOTSON: The Bucs are going slow with Demar Dotson, who is full go after surgeries to repair a torn posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his knee. He's being held out of 11-on-11 drills.
"Dot's been cleared to practice. Right now we're holding him out on 11-and-11 just as he eases back in,'' Koetter said. "He missed OTAs. As he's easing back in to on the field work. When we go 11-on-11, even though we're trying to stay on our feet, there's bodies on the ground. Part of coming back from an injury is just getting your confidence back. But we expect everything to be fine with Dot and hopefully there's no surprises.''
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KEEP AN EYE ON: M.J. Stewart, the second-round pick from North Carolina is a quick study. With Vernon Hargreaves out with a leg laceration, Stewart will be getting more looks as a defender in the slot. He had an interception and and what would've been a sack.