TAMPA — Time and time again, they watched Jameis Winston operate in the clutch. Give him a pressure situation, a little adrenaline, and he would block out all the distractions of linemen and lawyers and take his Florida State football team to the promised land.
He climbed out of all the holes, many he dug for himself, to produce a 26-1 record and capture a Heisman Trophy and a national championship. Everyone had confidence he could win.
That's why the Bucs believe so much in the 21-year-old quarterback.
Tampa Bay chose Winston No. 1 overall in the NFL draft Thursday night in Chicago, taking him over Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who went with second pick to the Tennessee Titans. Tampa Bay hosts the Titans in the regular-season opener at Raymond James Stadium Sept. 13.
"He's a champion," general manager Jason Licht said. "He's a leader. He's a winner. He's got tremendous football character and tremendous intelligence and work ethic. His work ethic is one thing that really, really put him over the top with us, combined with his leadership and just his 'it' factor."
Winston spent Thursday on a large estate near his home in Bessemer, Ala., the site of his draft day party that included at least 200 invitation-only guests who walked a red carpet in front of an oversized photo backdrop of him playing for the Seminoles.
Licht and Bucs coach Lovie Smith recognized Winston might not be a popular choice Thursday but they made a case for why he was the best one. His accomplishments on the field were diminished by a series of poor decisions off it. Winston said Thursday he was eager
to earn the trust of his coaches, teammates and community.
"Actions speak so much louder than words, what they've read or what they may have heard," Winston said. "It's about your actions. Whatever is in the past is in the past. I look forward to gaining everyone's trust."
By the time he arrived at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, Smith used the word "exonerated" when discussing the 2012 allegation of sexual assault by Zephyrhills' Erica Kinsman against Winston. Charges were never brought against Winston, but she recently filed a lawsuit.
The other transgressions — stealing soda at a Burger King, participating in a BB gun fight in which players shot out more than $4,000 worth of windows, shoplifting crab legs at Publix (saying he believed he had the hookup) and getting suspended for a game after standing on a table at the student union and shouting a vulgar phrase — have been described as merely a lack of maturity.
"If he wasn't a good guy, we wouldn't have used the first pick on him," Licht said. "Not only were we comfortable with him and his character, we are confident in his character and we think his character that he brings to the locker room and in the building is a strength.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
"He won us over. He won a lot of people over in this building and around the league."
Smith said he's aware there are fans who won't agree with the choice. "I would just ask our fans to give him a chance," Smith said. "We did a lot of research. We want what's best with our football team. There's a certain type of guy we're going to bring into our organization. I would just say to our fans, again, just give him a chance. Don't have any preconceived opinions about him and let him show us who he is as man and as a football player."
Licht said the Bucs received a lot of interest from teams wanting to trade for the No. 1 pick, including from the Philadelphia Eagles, who offered two first-round choices and a package of players.
"We were never tempted," Licht said. We wanted to take (Winston) the whole time. You never not take a phone call, so it was interesting to hear what the offers were. I don't even want to put a price on it. He's a franchise quarterback."
Added Licht: "There are big expectations. That's one of the things about Jameis that set him apart. He can play under some pressure now. And he plays best in the clutch. You can see that on film, you can see that in games. The more pressure the better he plays. That's a microcosm of what he's going to be under here. And he knows he's going to be under a lot of pressure."