He has played on bigger stages and in a much hotter spotlight. In a few days, nobody will remember the final score of tonight's Bucs preseason opener against the Vikings. But don't tell Jameis Winston the game doesn't count. • Two days before his pro debut, Winston looked relaxed wearing a red shirt and black sweat pants, seated in an interview room at One Buc Place. The rookie quarterback had just completed the team's walk-through when asked what could constitute a successful debut. • "We win," Winston said matter-of-factly. "People always talk about preseason (like) you're not really focused about the winning and losing, 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.
"My personal goal is to lead the team the right way, to lead us to a victory. There's only so much I can do because I'm probably not going to be playing the whole game. I just want to do the right thing."
There are bound to be some hiccups for Winston this season, perhaps even against the Vikings. Despite his boundless upside, Winston has thrown his share of bad passes during the first few days of training camp. Tonight he is expected to play into the second quarter, an unusually heavy workload for the first preseason game. The Bucs believe Winston needs as much experience as reasonably possible.
And they are excited about watching him perform.
"Yes, there's a lot of excitement to see Jameis play for the first time, and our football team, hopefully, too," coach Lovie Smith said. "And with good reason. You had the first pick in the draft, and there's a lot that comes with that, but there are a lot of other things that we're excited about also. It's a team sport, and our team has looked good."
Winston will need help from some fellow rookies to be successful. Left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet could see significant playing time. That puts the onus on offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to get the ball out of Winston's hand quickly.
"Four or five positions, I'm anxious to see exactly how they respond," Lovie Smith said.
Typically, rookie quarterbacks do well to be able to spit out the plays and understand where to go with the ball. The Bucs didn't game plan much for the Vikings, so Winston will have to do the best he can with diagnosing defenses.
Quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian said he would like to see Winston take care of the ball.
"Whether it's a rookie or a veteran, I think we're looking for a quarterback that will manage the offense," Bajakian said, "(one) that's going to take care of the football, that's going to use good judgment and make plays when they are presented.
"Obviously, there are a limited number of opportunities in the course of a game to make a play, and when that opportunity is presented, we have to be able to take advantage and make that play."
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The plan to play Winston into the second quarter may change based on how the game unfolds. Bajakian said the things he will be looking for — presence in the huddle, technique, drop — may not be noticeable to the casual fan.
"There's been great progress in all those areas, and if you're sitting in the stands watching, you might not be able to see that," Bajakian said. "You might not be able to see how he stands in the huddle and decisively calls a play and executes the checks at the line of scrimmage and all those things. So he's making great progress both mentally and physically, and now, obviously, we just need to take that to the game."
Most of all, Winston said, this game is about the fun of being able to play football. He hasn't participated in a live game since January.
"It's his first NFL snap in a game situation, so he's excited," Bajakian said. "It's his first time in a Bucs game uniform, so there's definitely a level of intensity and, you know, the anxiousness that goes along with playing your first game at the NFL level. It's a dream that every boy has. He's excited for the game."