Affairs of the heart can be tricky. Sometimes there is no real explanation for the power of attraction. Lovie Smith discovered that before entering one of the most delicate relationships in pro sports, the coach-quarterback bond he began forging with Jameis Winston. • "It so happened there were two quarterbacks in this draft," Smith said. "You're pretty happy with your wife. I'm pretty happy with my wife. There can be two wives and we can both be happy. That's what's best for you; this is what's best for me. • "I think there's a perfect person for everybody and I thought Jameis was just exactly what we were looking for." • The other quarterback, of course, was Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who was courted briefly by the Bucs but left to fall to the No. 2 overall pick held by the Tennessee Titans. • For the first time in NFL history, quarterbacks taken 1-2 will make their pro debut against each other today at Raymond James Stadium.
Smith will enjoy his 11th opening day as an NFL head coach, but there is really nothing comparable to this one. Coaches go their whole careers without owning the No. 1 overall draft pick, much less in a year when a highly regarded quarterback is staring at you. Until this season, it had never happened for Smith.
"We earned it," he said of a disappointing 2-14 season that landed the top choice.
Not that there wasn't plenty of cause for pause before selecting Winston. He carried more baggage from Florida State than you could fit on an airport carousel.
Smith divided Winston's mistakes into two categories: college stuff (firing B.B. guns, stealing crab legs at Publix and soft drinks at Burger King, shouting obscenities from atop a table) and the tawdriness of being accused of sexual assault by Erica Kinsman, a case in which investigations by both the state attorney's office and a former Florida Supreme Court justice in a Title IX case didn't find enough evidence to charge or penalize Winston.
Winston still faces a civil suit over the matter that might not be resolved until 2017.
Smith said he was "loyal to the process" of interviewing more than 75 people about Winston and says the information convinced the coaching staff and Glazer family that owns the team that this was not a bad person.
On the field, Smith was thoroughly aware of Winston's talent after watching him win a national championship and Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman.
"First, you have to say, 'What do you look for in a quarterback?' " Smith said. "To me, you know what a quarterback has to be able to do? To me, a quarterback has to be able to throw the ball. If he's a heck of a leader, too, and his teammates just believe that with him in charge, we're going to be okay, we have a chance to win. I think when you get to know Jameis, you say that.
"Okay, next, is he built strong? This guy has been critiqued, prodded, criticized and attacked. He's been through it all. And you know what he does? Same smile. 'Let's go! Let's go!' Every situation I've seen him in, I've been impressed with how he's handled it. From the first day in camp, not so good day in camp. Good game, not so good game. We're developing a guy the way you have to develop a quarterback."
Smith was sold that Winston was the best choice before he had his first meeting with him at the NFL combine in February in Indianapolis.
Assuming his off-field behavior wasn't too big of a red flag, next came the selling of the idea of Winston as the Bucs quarterback to their fans and community.
Winston did his part. Before the draft, he participated in charity events in Tampa held by iconic former players such as Mike Alstott and Derrick Brooks, both attended by Smith.
With three sons of his own — Mikal and Miles are on the Bucs coaching staff and Matthew serves as his agent — Smith represents a "soother" for Winston, the calm to his chaos.
"That's why I believe these players fight for Coach Smith because they know he genuinely loves them and wants to not only make us great football players, but great men," Winston said. "He believes if we have great men on this football team, we're going to have a successful outcome. Just his values and how he views life, I just look up to him because that's a great man."
The Bucs knew what they had on the field in Winston: a 6-foot-4 quarterback who could read coverage, check protection and make big plays.
Meanwhile, Mariota had never taken a real snap under center nor spit out a play in the huddle since high school.
That said, Winston had earned the reputation as a gunslinger. During the weeks before the draft, his 18 interceptions last season at Florida State became the beacon for his detractors.
It drove Smith crazy.
First, Winston had lost his go-to receiver in Kelvin Benjamin, who had 1,000 yards receiving as a rookie for Carolina last season. Also, people acted as if Winston's freshman year — in which he threw 40 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions — had never happened.
"It's a good thing," Winston said of his gunslinger label. "I like throwing the football and making big plays.
"I'm very aggressive. One thing (Florida State coach Jimbo) Fisher always says, 'make the right decisions and know why you made the decision,' " Winston said. "If I know my whys and I make a mistake, I know I won't make that same mistake again. When people talk about interceptions, it's a lot of things that come with interceptions. Anything can cause an interception. But at the end of the day, the stat sheet is going to say the quarterback has the interception. My objective is not to focus on interceptions at all. My objective is to move the ball up and down the field."
Smith is convinced Winston is not interception-prone. He threw two in the preseason while completing 48.9 percent of his passes with no touchdowns. He believes that turnover tag is not deserved.
"No, I don't. Based on one year?" Smith said. "So that was based on one year at Florida State. How about the other year? How did he play the other year?
"You never even hear about that. That year was just gone. It went away. That last year, there were a lot of things. And think about this: as a young man, look at all the things he had going on off the field. So what do you choose to believe? To me, there were enough things that told me Y-y-y-y-y-es on him! And it's only been confirmed even more."
Winston's teammates like him. He rarely isn't wearing a big smile and can move easily from one group to the next, working the room like a politician, completely comfortable in his own skin.
"Guys throughout this locker room really respect the way he goes through his work," receiver Vincent Jackson said. "He's professional. He's done everything we've asked. He continues to improve. You can tell he cares, he's a competitive guy. And he brings that energy. It's infectious."
Every NFL quarterback taken No. 1 overall undergoes relentless scrutiny, especially the first year, until their performance can label them as a success or failure.
"I've seen a lot of talented guys. But they don't all know how to win," Smith said. "This guy knows how to win. Look at his record a little bit, too. How many did he lose? Was he up there in a tough league (the ACC) or was he with Ali (Marpet in Division III)? Who was he playing? National champion and then at least in the playoff the next year. That was high-caliber ball he was playing. What else would he have had to do in college? What would he have to do?"
Winston lost only one game in two years at Florida State, a 59-20 rout at the hands of Mariota's Oregon Ducks in the national semifinal at the Rose Bowl.
One question people constantly ask Smith is how Winston will handle failure?
"That's why this game of football is so beautiful," Winston said. "You're going to win some, you're going to lose some and that's why we haven't had anybody go undefeated a lot. I don't focus on the negatives. My goal every day is to go out there and I'm going to find a way to win. L's? I don't want to ever focus on those, I just focus on winning. But it's not always about winning. It's about us getting better as a team, it's about me making the right decisions, protecting the football, everybody keeping our mental errors down. If we go into a game and somebody just lines up and beats us, sometimes you've got to tip your hat because they're getting paid, they were drafted, too. But we don't want to beat ourselves."
Sitting at a table on a patio facing a practice field, watching as a group of linebackers ran drills, Smith spoke of his close relationship with players. Leaning forward, he moved his arms in a hugging motion and said Winston has the rare ability to bring players closer together.
"That's why I wanted to go a little deeper in the process, getting to know him and his family, and let him know, hey, our relationship is going to be different," Smith said. "It is quarterback-head coach. And if you have a head coach who doesn't get along with his quarterback, that doesn't work. I knew all that.
"But when you believe in someone like I believe in Jameis, that can be a good thing and it's fun watching it all play out. This is something different. I realize that. That's why I feel like I'm blessed to be in this position to influence someone like that. I know he trusts me. I know he wants to play for me, he wants me to be his head football coach. I know all that.
"And we're going to win a lot of games together doing it a certain way."
Sunday, September 13, 2015 | Section X |