Even in preseason, Bucs hungry for home victory

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston passes against Minnesota during his preseason debut on Aug. 15.
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston passes against Minnesota during his preseason debut on Aug. 15.
Published Aug. 24, 2015

TAMPA — Jameis Winston knows nobody gets too caught up in the final score of NFL preseason games. Starters don't play very long. Some exchange a helmet for a ball cap before the fans' first beer gets warm. It's treated more like a movie trailer, a simple preview of coming attractions.

But Winston believes tonight's preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Raymond James Stadium — televised on Monday Night Football no less — should count for something.

"People always talk about preseason, you're not really focused about the winning and losing," Winston said. "But we need wins. That's very important to me, and I know it's important to those guys in the locker room. To get a win up under our belt."

That's because including the preseason, the Bucs have lost 11 games in a row at RJS. Their last victory of any kind at home came on Dec. 8, 2013, a 27-6 win over the Buffalo Bills. Lovie Smith hasn't won a game there since taking over as the Bucs coach 19 months ago.

It's important to note that the Bucs haven't won much on the road, either. Tampa Bay has only 12 regular-season wins since 2012.

"It's important, but I don't live in the past an awful lot," Smith said. "We are trying to go past that. I know this year we haven't lost a game there and that's what I'm talking (about) to our football team. Just the opening home game is important. Fans have been great here. …We need to eventually have a great homefield advantage and that's based on our play, starting off with that. We realize that. I know the guys can't wait to play."

Lately, Bucs fans have stayed away in droves. A crowd just south of 50,000 is expected in 65,908-seat RJS. That includes the five free tickets distributed to each of the thousand or so active duty and veteran military personnel and their families invited for the final training camp workout at One Buc Place last week.

"Since I've been here I don't think we have won a home game," center Evan Smith said. "That's something I want to change really quick. It's something that I have talked to my guys about, and it's something the fans deserve to have."

The Bucs once had a decisive homefield edge. In a six-year stretch from 1997-2002, Tampa Bay went 37-14 during the regular season and postseason combined at RJS. But when it has been seven years since the last playoff appearance — and 12 since the last postseason win — memories can be fleeting.

Of course, the Bucs are banking heavily that Winston can begin to change all that. As much as any player in the past decade, he is the biggest marquee talent to help spin the turnstiles.

Winston had a down-and-up performance in the 26-16 preseason loss Aug. 15 at Minnesota. He started only 2-of-9 passing before finding a rhythm in the two-minute offense to finish 9-of-19 for 131 yards with an interception. He set up a field goal and ran for a touchdown.

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"His command — like we talked about since Day 1 — of the huddle, of the line of scrimmage was very good," quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian said. "Then obviously he bounced back after throwing the interception. He led that drive down for a touchdown and scored with a good play."

Winston and much of the starting offense is expected to play the first half tonight against the Bengals. He'd like to get off to a faster start. Put some more points on the board. Maybe build a lead. Even Winston can't be sure in a preseason game whether the Bucs will win. But as he points out, if you don't believe it, you're already defeated.