Bucs draft Winston: They'd better be right

Jameis Winston reacts with his family and friends as he takes the call from the Bucs in Bessemer, Ala.
Jameis Winston reacts with his family and friends as he takes the call from the Bucs in Bessemer, Ala.
Published May 15, 2015

TAMPA — Bucs general manager Jason Licht and coach Lovie Smith sounded pretty convincing and completely comfortable when talking about their decision to take Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the first overall pick Thursday in the NFL draft.

Great talent on the field, Lovie said. Good person off the field, Licht said. Perfect guy to lead a franchise, both said.

Tell you what, fellas. You better be right. You better make this work.

You've made your choice, and now it's you two who are on the clock.

If you're right, you'll be here for as long as you want. You'll be the toast of the town. You might get your names in the ring of honor some day.

If you're wrong, you're out. Done. Finished. Maybe in a year or two. Three years tops.

This dynamic duo, who took over a real bad football team a year ago and somehow made it even worse, are now turning to a polarizing pick to lead the franchise out of the darkness. That decision not only will determine the future of the franchise but who will be in charge of the franchise in the future.

"It's not often that a general manager gets a chance to draft (a player) that he and coach thinks is a franchise quarterback," Licht said. "Somebody asked me if it was like Christmas and I said, 'No, it's more like your wedding day.' "

Good analogy because Licht and Lovie certainly are married to Winston now. There will be no divorce. If Winston can't do the job, Licht and Lovie will be out of theirs. They won't get a chance to pick another quarterback in the draft, not here in Tampa Bay.

To be clear, it's hard to say the Bucs are making a mistake. Winston is the best quarterback in the draft, the best player in the draft and the Bucs desperately need a quarterback.

But this is also clear: This was not an easy pick.

Winston has all the potential to blow up in your face. On the field and off the field.

On the field, his gun-slinging mentality led to an alarming number of interceptions. His tendency to fall behind in games was no big deal when he was playing Louisville and Florida. It will be a huge problem against the Colts and Cowboys.

And, hey, he's a quarterback. You just don't know until he gets out there if he is going to be Ryan Leaf or Tom Brady.

Off the field? Well, that's well documented. Poor decisions. Immaturity. Stupidity. And a pretty nasty allegation that will continue to follow him regardless of what any court of law says or doesn't say.

When Winston was asked about questions on the field and doubts off of it, he said all the right things. He defended himself. He talked about not having negative thoughts. He promised to win over everyone — fans, teammates, coaches — with his hard work.

That was all good enough for Licht, Lovie and the Bucs.

"I can't even think of a word right now," Licht said when announcing Winston as his choice. "I'm beyond excited."

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I can think of plenty of words: risky, polarizing, controversial and, until Winston proves otherwise, a crapshoot.

Start with the off-the-field questions.

"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 were confident in his character."

Many around Tampa Bay hate this pick. They've heard the serious allegation. They're sick of hearing about crab legs and BB guns. They think Winston is, at most, an immature nitwit or, at worst, an evil monster. Some will turn their back on this organization simply because Winston is now on the team.

"I would just ask our fans to give him a chance," Smith said. "We've done a lot of research. We want what is best for our football team. … Don't have any preconceived opinions about him. Just let him show us who he is as a man and as a football player."

Smith does have a point here, and it's one that should give you some hope that Winston is going to turn out okay. Licht and Lovie did extensive research on Winston. The Bucs looked into everything and anything. They know full well that their jobs are on the line if Winston doesn't pan out.

Why would they take Winston and risk their own jobs if they thought there was a pretty good chance that Winston couldn't play quarterback and couldn't be an upstanding citizen?

They know their rear ends are on the line. They know that if Winston messes up that they will be out of work. They know Winston holds the future in his hands and in his arm and in the part of the brain that makes decisions. It's up to them to make sure he succeeds in football and in life by surrounding with good players and even better mentors.

Anyway, it's over now. The Bucs have made their pick. Jameis Winston, warts and all, is their quarterback. He is their leader, the face of the franchise. The Bucs are hoping he works out fine.

If he doesn't, it might takes years before the Bucs have a chance to win. By then, Licht and Lovie would be long gone.