TAMPA — Jameis Winston leaned back in the large padded chair perched near the back row of the team auditorium at One Buc Place on Tuesday after being asked to rewind the calendar and recall the biggest lesson learned from a record-setting rookie season that had, on balance, more ups than downs.
"The biggest thing I learned was being able to take care of the football," Winston said. His first NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown against Marcus Mariota's Titans, and he threw five picks against Carolina before steadying by midseason.
"I kind of got spoiled a little at Florida State where I had a couple early turnovers but I was able to bounce back and come back and lead us to a victory. But every play matters in football in general, but especially in the pros. You never know if you're going to get that drive back. You never know if you're going to score the next time because it's tougher."
Winston passed for 4,042 yards with 22 touchdowns (he ran for six others) and 15 interceptions, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl where he learned his body wasn't as sculpted as his teammates' and vowed to do something about it. But the four-game losing streak to end the season resulted in the firing of coach Lovie Smith on Winston's birthday, a move that shocked and disappointed him.
"As the season gets longer, we started losing some guys," Winston said of the late-season tailspin. "We lost Vincent (Jackson) for the last three weeks, and that hurt us again. Injuries can always play a factor on that. But I commend the guys on the fight that we had. Definitely. I still say today losing Kwon (Alexander to a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs) was a big thing because he was one of our leaders. We had two rookies that were big leaders on that team last year, and that kind of hurt us."
Three days after the season, Smith was fired. The next morning, Winston was called into the team's headquarters to meet with general manager Jason Licht to talk about the dismissal.
Winston, who says Smith was his biggest advocate during the NFL draft, said he knew NFL quarterbacks had struggled after having to start over after their first pro season with a new system and coaching staff.
"I just remember having to come in the next day and having to talk to Mr. Licht," Winston said Tuesday. "I remember him asking me, 'Are you okay?' I said, 'Yes, I'm all right. I'm good.' Because Lovie just meant a lot to me. He took a chance on me with the first pick. Every meeting I had with Lovie before that draft, he said, 'You're my guy. You're my guy.' "
Winston's fears were calmed a week later when offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was named coach, keeping most offensive assistants in place. "I'm excited that Coach Koetter is here," Winston said. "I was kind of down in the dumps because I was like, What quarterback has been successful after they've lost their offensive coordinator, quarterback coach and head coach in the same year? I was just like, 'We're going through the whole process again.' "
Instead, with Koetter as head coach, Winston has a chance to build on the progress he made in his first season.
"(Quarterback) Mike Glennon made me realize it even more when he said, 'Bro, this is the first time in my NFL career that I have the same offensive playbook,' " Winston said. "And I said that's important, from a chemistry standpoint, from a learning standpoint, so we can build off last year."
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Winston has certainly had a whirlwind offseason. After seeing the bodies of Pro Bowl teammates such as Julio Jones, he hired Tim Grover, the trainer for Michael Jordan, to work on his conditioning, feet and core muscles. He is a trim 230 pounds and dropping. He appeared at charitable events organized by Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Mike Alstott and the DeBartolo Family Foundation. He was baptized with girlfriend Breion Allen at a spiritual retreat in Colorado.
"I felt like I never had a true football offseason," said Winston, who spent his springs playing baseball at Florida State. "I believe this offseason I was able to do that, and I was kind of excited because usually I would be on a mound or sitting in the bullpen ready to close or something. And this year, I have a whole different mentality. I will be chilled and relaxed. I love thinking about football year round."