TAMPA, Fla. — Introductions and first impressions won’t be necessary for Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston and new head coach Bruce Arians. That happened more than 10 years ago, when Winston was in high school and attended Arians’ football camp in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I had a little quarterback challenge — a couple kids from Kentucky, Tennessee, around the South,” Arians told ESPN. “They were all seniors being recruited, and I think [Winston] was in ninth or 10th grade. He blew them all away, and I was like, ‘Woah!’ … He definitely made an impression on me in that football camp, that’s for sure.”
That’s how Winston, or “Jaboo,” as Arians and many others call him, came to be known as the “Birmingham Legend.”
“He was a bright student and an unbelievable athlete, so you knew,” said Arians, who kept in touch with Winston and followed his journey at Florida State and in the pros.
“Just knowing each other, I always looked him up when we played him. Told him, ‘Keep on going, it’s going to be fine,'” said Arians, whose next challenge will be helping Winston fulfill that promise he showed as a youngster, picking up where former head coach Dirk Koetter left off.
It was Koetter’s work with Winston that earned him a promotion from offensive coordinator in 2015 to head coach in 2016, following the firing of Lovie Smith.
But while Koetter developed the Bucs into one of the NFL’s top passing attacks, Tampa Bay struggled to win games, going 5-11 the past two seasons after 9-7 in Koetter’s first.
Winston also continued to struggle with turnovers. His 76 turnovers is tied for the most in the NFL from his rookie season of 2015, including 58 interceptions, which is tied for second-most in the league in that span.
Despite the turnovers, Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” philosophy will still play a big role in the Bucs’ offense.
“It’s being smart, not scared,” Arians said. “I don’t ever want him throwing a football, worrying about it getting intercepted. … I can live with an interception, but you’re not gonna win throwing three,” Arians said. “I think some of those are when he’s trying too hard. You’ve got all the teammates around you. Let them do their jobs.'”
“There’s times where you have to pick and choose your battles at this position. It’s OK to throw the ball away. It’s OK to hit a checkdown and do all those things and not take those chances in the first half,” Stanton told ESPN. “I think B.A. respects the quarterback position enough to give you that leniency once he kind of instills all those [values].”
“He can do everything you need a franchise quarterback to do,” Stanton said of Winston. “I’ve watched enough film of him to believe that. It’s just a matter of fine-tuning that stuff. He has all those intangibles you look for, and he can do all those things. Part of the reason B.A. took that job is because of who he has in place at that position.”
The Bucs have committed to Winston as their starter for 2019, when he’ll earn $20.9 million as part of the team’s fifth-year option. What comes thereafter largely depends on what Winston is able to show, but a long-term contract is the next step.
Arians has already said that they’ll be building this team around Winston, and that carries an enormous amount of weight, particularly considering that Winston was benched earlier in the 2018 season, and that when Koetter was fighting for his job, he chose to start Ryan Fitzpatrick and not Winston because he believed Fitzpatrick gave Tampa Bay the best chance to win. Winston was also not elected a team captain, even though Koetter delayed the captains’ vote until after he returned from his three-game suspension.
“No pressure, no pressure whatsoever. I want him to relax and play the game. Talent is no issue. It’s just becoming a little bit smarter,” said Arians, who appointed Clyde Christensen as his quarterbacks coach and Byron Leftwich as his offensive coordinator. “It’s his team and I’ll tell our players in the first meeting, ‘This isn’t my team, it’s your team. We’ll be as good as you want to be.'”
Arians said he does want to have closer to a 50-50 run-pass ratio to help Winston out. He also intends to have a strong off-the-field relationship with Winston, who turned 25 this month and is a new father. That’s something Winston longed for with Koetter but didn’t always have.
“They become my sons. I’m very interested in what they’re doing on the field, off the field — there has to be a level of trust between the head coach and a playcaller and a quarterback. You have to tell me what you really saw. Don’t worry about the answer. Just give me the truth. I think that goes with every position, but especially a quarterback.”