TAMPA — Jameis Winston took his place in the huddle with all eyes and ears focusing on his words.
Winston was surrounded by a semi-circle of students at Twin Lakes Elementary School. A large mural of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback rose behind him in his Dream Room, a technological center he donated to the school.
His foundation distributed 25 iPads and other world-class equipment to students. But for Winston, the coolest thing was a 3D printer. Prior to the student assembly, Winston had used it to make a miniature football.
“You can create whatever you want to in this HP projector over here and it actually transforms over here to this 3D printer, which makes things come to life,’’ said Winston, two days after the Bucs’ greatest victory in years. “Just like your dreams.’’
Winston’s dream of becoming one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks still isn’t complete and it’s been anything but a push-button process. Yet he appears to be transforming before everyone’s eyes, having played the best three-game stretch of his career: 973 yards, eight touchdowns and only two interceptions. He threw four touchdown passes in the Bucs’ 55-40 win in Los Angeles to earn NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
On Sunday, the Bucs (2-2) have a chance to take over first place in the NFC South with a win at New Orleans (3-1). A win will go a long way in helping Winston exorcise past Superdome demons.
Winston missed this game last year, serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s player conduct policy. Two years ago, New Orleans represented a potential detonation of his career.
The day began with Winston in the middle of the team huddle before the game, cajoling players with a bizarre motivational speech that saw him licking three of his fingers. “That’s a W!’’ Winston said pacing back and forth. “That’s a W! How many people want to eat a W tonight?’’
Even Winston’s teammates were dumbfounded.
“I actually always liked Jameis’ speeches,’’ receiver Mike Evans said. “The eating a W one was probably wasn’t one of his better ones. It was maybe the worst one he had. It was kind of nasty, too. But it would’ve cool if we had won. Everybody would say, ‘They really did eat one.’ ’’
Instead, Winston was knocked out of the game after aggravating a shoulder injury. Evans was ejected coming to his defense when Winston shoved Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. And the Bucs lost 30-10 on their way to a 5-11 season.
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Bucs head coach Bruce Arians remembers seeing replays of Winston’s pre-game speech in the Superdome.
“I thought, that’s too much,’’ Arians said. “That’s too much. It’s him, naturally, and you don’t want to change him. But you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s enough.’’’
So this year, Arians barred Winston from pregame motivational speeches at midfield and elected linebacker Lavonte David to do it.
“Yes, and that’s kind of by design, going to Lavonte,’’ Arians said. “(Winston) doesn’t need that. He doesn’t need to be that guy. He doesn’t need to be eating (W’s) and all that stuff. He’s still at the door, patting players’ backs, 'Let’s go, let’s go!’ Let some other guys do that. And as I told him, ‘We need other leaders. We don’t need just you.’ We can have guys from the other side of the ball doing it too.
“Leadership comes with the territory. You don’t have to be the ‘rah, rah cheerleader,’ too.’’
Arians arrived in Tampa Bay shaking the pompoms for Winston. His biggest challenge remains trying to coach the turnovers out of him. In his first four years, Winston threw 58 interceptions and lost 18 fumbles.
After a promising training camp and preseason, Arians and his staff weren’t prepared for the three-interception clunker in a 31-17 loss to the 49ers in the season opener. Two of those picks were returned for touchdowns.
“That was a major setback,’’ Bucs quarterback coach Clyde Christensen said. “We should’ve won that game and not give it away at the quarterback position. I just didn’t see it coming.’’
But Winston bounced back. Four days later, he outplayed Cam Newton to win in Carolina. The Bucs blew an 18-point lead to the Giants, and even though Winston had an egregious interception in that game, he made big-time throws to Chris Godwin and Evans to put the Bucs in position to win before rookie Matt Gay missed a 34-yard field goal in a 32-31 loss.
Last week, after the pick-six interception cut the Bucs lead to 45-40 over the Rams, Winston read a blitz and connected with Evans on a 67-yard touchdown pass to win the game.
The key is that Winston is being coached hard by Arians, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and Christensen — and responding to it.
“I probably see it as I’m his swing coach and Byron is his caddy and you work your way around the course,’’ Christensen said. “Do we want to play a driver off this tee or do we want to play a three-wood? And then Bruce is the boss of the family. He makes sure we’re doing our job right.’’
Now 25, Winston has a head coach who believes in him, a coordinator who played quarterback in the NFL and a $20.1-million salary as part of the fifth and final year of his rookie deal. He’s had hot streaks before. But an improved running game and turnover-causing defense will help the Bucs win games. The stakes are high.
Before Winston and the Titans Marcus Mariota, no quarterback drafted under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement had played under a fifth-year option. Only four of 13 first-rounders were extended after four seasons. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, drafted the year after Winston, earned extensions already.
Now, if he continues to play at this pace, he’ll earn an extension. Asked why he believes he has responded so quickly to the Bucs’ new offense and coaching regime, Winston demurred and credited the players around him.
“It’s just this team,’’ Winston said. “This team is just unbelievable and it starts from the head coach all the way down. We just have so much support from our coaching staff. We have so much pride representing each other. I’ve been a part of great teams and you can feel it in the building."
Engaged to long-time girlfriend Brieon Allen and the father of the couple’s 15-month old son, Winston has never been in a better space both on and off the field. It’s too early to know what will happen after this season, but he’s taking his own advice and thinking big.
“When you lay your down at night, you’re going to have these amazing dreams,’’ Winston told students. “Do not limit yourself. Do not think you c-a-n-n-o-t do it. You can. You can. You will.’’