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The biggest change this season in Jameis Winston

Winston's 2018 percentages, including winning percentage, are tracking at or near his career levels. What's visibly different has been his composure on the field and demeanor off it.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Jameis Winston responds to questions at a news conference after their NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Jameis Winston responds to questions at a news conference after their NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Published Dec. 27, 2018

TAMPA — Jameis Winston makes known his desire to embrace every day as an opportunity to become a better football player.

Yet when you look at the quarterback who will finish his fourth NFL season Sunday against Atlanta, some of the same questions linger.

He's immensely talented, but still has a penchant for making bad decisions with the football. Turnovers remain his biggest weakness.

The area where Winston has most noticeably changed from a year ago is in his demeanor.

He's learned he can still be passionate and not be penalized. He's learned it's not necessarily how many words you say to encourage your teammates, it's the value behind those words.

Opposing coaches talk about Winston's competitive fire, but over his first three seasons, that fire came with a short fuse. He could be goaded into a unnecessary roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. And the same player who was loquaciously leading his team at Florida State was in the middle of the huddle hyping his team with unparalleled fervor in his voice and intensity in his eyes.

There's something visibly different about Winston. He seems more composed on the field and subdued on the media podium. The days of making his hand into a W and "eating a win" by putting it in his mouth are gone. He's still there greeting and encouraging teammates, but it's without the show.

And if Winston gets through Sunday's game without an unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness penalty, it will mark his first season without one since his rookie year.

"I think he's done a good job of that," coach Dirk Koetter said. "He's improved in that area."

Said Winston: "I just learned to be wise with your words and just mean what you say. There's no reason to go on an extended periods of conversation when you can just be straight and to the point and [just say] let's go out there and win."

The change comes as the Bucs approach a major offseason decision. Winston's $20.9 million contract for 2019 is only guaranteed if he cannot pass a physical in March.

Through 10 games his completion percentage is up (64.7 percent compared to a 61.5 career average), as his interception percentage (3.8 to 3.0). But he and the Bucs are winning at the same rate as his rookie year — they're 3-5 in eight starts compared to 6-10 in 2015.

Winston warns not to confuse his new approach for a diminished competitive fire. It's just that he's learned that competitiveness doesn't necessarily have to correlate with being so gregarious.

"My competitiveness isn't different at all," Winston said Thursday. "I think you can lead in different ways. I think people receive messages differently.

"Initially, talking to people — my peers who are the same age that I am — it's easier to get guys riled up and get them to match that level of intensity with you. But these are grown men for the most part, and if we're getting paid to be professionals and do our job.

"If a rah-rah speech or some magnificent 20 words said in a pregame speech, if that's the magical thing to get us going and winning, I'd be happy to do that," Winston said. "But there's 53 guys in there who can tell you right now that they've been playing this game for a long time and no particular speech can get them to go out there and perform better on the football field."

Last Sunday in Dallas, Cowboys defensive tackle Antwaun Woods mimicked Winston's "Eat a W" gesture in front of him after his third-down scramble was just short of a first down. Winston rose to his feet, adjusted his chinstrap and went back to the huddle.

That's a much different from the Bucs last trip to Dallas in 2016, when Winston was flagged for unnecessary roughness after headbutting Cowboys linebacker Justin Durant, forcing Tampa Bay to settle for a field goal in what became a 26-20 loss.

This time last season, Winston had to answer to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for an outburst during a Week 16 loss at Carolina, where Winston had to be restrained by teammates for emphatically arguing that he had recovered his own fumble. The previous month, Winston was involved in a sideline altercation with Saints defensive back Marshon Lattimore triggered when Winston poked the back of Lattimore's helmet to tell him to go back to the huddle. Receiver Mike Evans responded by hitting Lattimore and eventually drew a one-game suspension.

Winston has been able to dodge that this year. He did have a sideline argument with center Ryan Jensen three weeks ago after Jensen was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but cooler heads prevailed.

Winston said this year offered him a new opportunity to take a different look at everything around him. Because he was going to be suspended the first three games for violating the NFL's conduct policy, Winston spent preseason camp taking backup snaps. He said that allowed him to do less rallying and yelling and more listening.

It served as a reminder that while he's the quarterback, he's just one of 53 players.

"Just my understanding and the respect that I have for those men that are around me," Winston said. "It kind of just grew and gave me a higher appreciation for the jobs that they did and it really allowed me to see how this whole thing comes together for the greater good."

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.