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  1. Bucs

Jameis Winston works hard to win over critics on, off field

He wasn't ready. With one open heart surgery behind him, T.J. Coy wasn't ready for more stitches and swelling and shivers. The email came as he and his mother, Stephanie, sat in a hotel in Gainesville in October waiting to check him into Shands at the University of Florida hospital so doctors could replace a valve to treat his congenital heart defect.

A family friend had asked the Bucs for an autograph, anything to lift the spirits of T.J., a 14-year-old student at Southwood Middle School in Palmetto Bay and a huge Florida State and Bucs fan.

Instead, Jameis Winston insisted on sending a video message. It lasted 12 seconds, slightly longer than an NFL play. The impact may be felt for years.

"Hey, T.J., this is Jameis Winston, your Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback. Man, I'm just wishing for you to get well soon. Just know I'm pulling for you just like you're pulling for me, buddy, and I'm your No. 1 fan.''

T.J. smiled as tears rolled down his cheeks.

"My son doesn't show a lot of emotion,'' Stephanie said. "And immediately he began to cry and said, 'I can't believe Jameis knows my name.' "

The Bucs say Winston personally responds to dozens of such requests, usually on the condition his effort remains confidential. He followed up the message to T.J. by inviting him to a game and played catch with him on the field at Raymond James Stadium before taking on the Giants in November.

When Winston came to the NFL a year ago as one of the most polarizing picks in the draft, some believed his off-field problems at Florida State — including a sexual assault accusation that never resulted in charges or other penalties — might catch him from behind, dragging him and the Bucs to the ground.

But for the past year, Winston has done everything he can on and off the field to improve himself as a player, a teammate and the face of the franchise. In so doing, he has begun to improve the way others perceive him.

"He showed another side we hadn't seen,'' Stephanie said of Winston's interactions with T.J. "We had heard all the scrutiny, the crab legs and all the other stuff (Winston's FSU problems also included walking out of a Publix without paying for crab legs), and we wanted to share (the interactions) with our friends.

"We got feedback from people that weren't always fans of his, and they're starting to change their minds.''

Said Winston: "It's just as important to me to win the (Walter Payton) Man of the Year Award as it is the MVP of this league."

The December 2012 sexual assault accusation against Winston made by Erica Kinsman of Zephyrhills is still being litigated in civil court. Winston always has said they had consensual sex.

Two investigations were held into the accusation. Then-State Attorney Willie Meggs declined to bring criminal charges, saying there wasn't enough evidence to get a conviction, and a retired state Supreme Court justice who presided over an FSU code of conduct hearing cleared Winston of four violations, saying there was no way to know who was telling the truth.

Winston remains the subject of a civil lawsuit filed by Kinsman. He filed a defamation countersuit against her. The sides had an all-day mediation session in Orlando before the start of training camp. A U.S. District Court trial has been set for March in Orlando.

The quarterback

As the Bucs begin the season at Atlanta this afternoon, Winston still hasn't forklifted the weight of expectations off his shoulders. But as always, he seems unaffected by them and has kept his focus on self-improvement.

It begins in darkness each day when the alarm clock goes off around 5 a.m. at the 5,400-square-foot Mediterranean home in Odessa he purchased for $1.2 million. He lives there with his girlfriend, Breion Allen, and Tootsie, his chocolate labradoodle.

Winston routinely arrives to One Buc Place before many of his coaches. "He's the last one to leave,'' receiver Adam Humphries said. "Just knowing your quarterback will sacrifice for you, that makes you want to go out there and work harder.''

When you stretch the chains and measure Winston's rookie season, he comes up only a few wins shy of remarkable. At 21, he took over a 2-14 team and was 6-6 with a good look at a wild-card playoff spot before a knee injury to receiver Vincent Jackson and the suspension of rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander for performance-enhancing drug use spawned a four-game losing streak to end the season.

"When we started hitting that midpoint of the season, we had that connection, and then we lost some pieces,'' said Winston, now 22.

Winston joined Cam Newton and Peyton Manning as the only rookie quarterbacks to throw for more than 4,000 yards, and he had 22 touchdowns passing and six rushing. He earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and was voted rookie of the year by fans.

It wasn't enough to save coach Lovie Smith's job. He was fired after the season. But wanting to keep continuity for Winston, the Bucs promoted offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to head coach.

Though Winston's body of work was impressive, his body was not. When he got to the Pro Bowl, he noticed his physique didn't resemble that of NFC teammates such as Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and Falcons receiver Julio Jones.

Winston said, "It goes back to the quarterback room and (Bucs backup) Mike Glennon telling me, 'Jameis, you've got rolls on your neck.' ''

Winston hired Michael Jordan's trainer, Tim Grover, and did two-a-day workouts for more than a month, dropping 15 pounds and changing his body.

"It was about adding explosion, quickness and just torque,'' Winston said. "When you can put your whole body into things, you can create so much power."

His mechanics are improved but still unrefined. Last season he took up too much space in the pocket, and his stride was too long. He held on to the ball too long. He took too many unnecessary hits.

"(He's) working on consistently keeping a shorter stride and making it a shorter space in which he can work," Bucs quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian said. "We talk about pocket presence. The term we use is take what you need. It might be stepping up; it might be a slight slide. Take what you need, but not more than that. But at the same time, operate in the tight confines of the pocket, which means you have to have a shorter stride and quicker release.''

The motivator

Receiver Adam Humphries was working out with his trainer in Anderson, S.C., during the offseason when he received group text messages from Winston — the message group named "Superbowlchamps" by running back Doug Martin — that provided an inspirational message or link several times a week, sometimes daily.

Actor Denzel Washington's commencement speech at Penn about "falling forward" was one of his favorites.

"You're back home training, you don't really see your teammates that much, it puts it back into perspective. This is what our goals are,'' Humphries said. "This is why I'm doing it. That's why all the other guys are doing it, too.

"I think what's big for (Winston) is he holds everyone to a pretty high standard. He'll get on you if you're messing up, which is good. You want that. He makes everyone accountable. His confidence is inspirational, really.''

Winston never has lacked charisma, and he has led players older than himself for most of his football life.

"He's one of the best natural leaders I've ever been around,'' Mike Bajakian said. "In my whole career in coaching quarterbacks, we've always coached leadership as a skill. It's something you can work on, you can improve.''

So Winston works at it. He studies other successful quarterbacks — Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning — not to make comparisons but to see what parts of their styles he can rip off.

"I'm a supervillain trying to steal their superpowers,'' Winston said.

He watched Peyton Manning's retirement speech. What could he glean from it?

"He had a relationship with everyone,'' Winston said. "And when you have a relationship with everyone, everyone starts to get your same mentality. It starts to get infectious, and everything starts to work well.''

Bajakian started quizzing his quarterbacks on the names of people at One Buc Place — the receptionist, the equipment men, media members, cafeteria help.

"Because if you know someone's name, and genuinely know their name, they respect that,'' Winston said.

Whether it's an undrafted rookie or a 12-year veteran like Vincent Jackson, Winston quickly sizes up players and has a way of connecting with them without using a football.

He is at the center of any huddle — before, during and after games. After warmups and a motivational speech on the field before each game, Winston makes a beeline for the locker room in order to be the first one at the door to greet every last Buc.

"One of the biggest impediments to leadership is the fear of conflict,'' Bajakian said. "He doesn't have that, because he can do it in a nonconfrontational way.''

Well, most of the time. Koetter was at home Monday, watching on television as Florida State headed to halftime with a 22-point deficit to Ole Miss in Orlando and thinking, "How much you want to bet Jameis was in there giving a halftime speech?''

Winston was, though it was more of a rant, mixed with some adult language, in which he called out the Seminoles' quarterback, running back, receivers and especially the offensive line. Florida State responded with the biggest comeback in school history and a 45-34 victory.

Said Koetter, "The thing I didn't know until I coached him was how real his competitive spirit is. I usually walk out and don't listen when the players talk. But he gets everybody fired up. And I think pep talks last five seconds, so I'm not really into that. But his are good.''

The face of the franchise

"He gets it,'' Bucs chief operating officer Brian Ford said of Winston. "His answer is always, 'How can I help?' ''

Acquiring a franchise quarterback such as Winston "is like winning the lottery," general manager Jason Licht said. That's from a performance aspect. But it transfers to the public side of the organization.

Whether it's a white-tablecloth conversation with suite holders or tossing footballs with kids at the Bucs' Special Olympics day, Winston is at ease with people. Whether it's at Cut for a Cure to raise money for pediatric cancer research, Famous Jameis' Holiday Jamboree presenting bags of gifts to underprivileged kids or his fundraising for juvenile diabetes, Winston isn't just a participant, he's the whole darn show.

He's also a big brother to 11-year-old Jonah, who seems to be one of the anchors of his life.

"Nobody is looking at me in a different light. I'm just out there having fun," Winston said.

In the offseason — the most extended break for players between the end of mandatory minicamp in June and the start of training camp in late July — Winston filled his calendar with football camps, averaging one personal appearance every three days over four states for 29 days.

He and his girlfriend, Breion Allen, also went to a Pro Athletes Outreach event in Colorado Springs. The weekend offered a chance for pros and their spouse or fiancee to have deep interaction with Jesus and reconnect.

"That's how we went, as a young couple,'' Winston said. "Those were some strong Christians. When it was time to get baptized, first she was going to get baptized by herself. I was baptized when I was younger because I grew up in the church. I told her, 'I'm going to go in there (waist-deep in water) with you and we're going to come out a new couple because we've done had a past.

"I'm just growing. Growing in faith and trying to better myself as a Christian and as a man.''