Even at age 22, the game never seems to get too big for Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston.
When the pressure of the game falls squarely on his shoulder pads, he carries it with the ease of a veteran, rather than the inexperience of a second-year NFL quarterback.
On Sunday night, Winston and the Bucs (8-5) face the NFC’s top team in the Dallas (11-2) Cowboys on the road. For added pressure, the Bucs face Dallas in the primetime slot amid a race for their first playoff berth since 2007.
Jameis Winston – Photo by: Mark Cook/PR
But as he’s done his entire career, Winston plans to keep his even-keeled demeanor, treating this game just like any other.
“We play the game for games like this — the ability to control our own destiny, the ability to be on the stage of Sunday Night Football,” Winston said. “That’s one of the reasons people enjoy this game.”
The Cowboys come in winning 11 of their last 12 games after losing last week to the New York Giants. The electric rookie duo of quarterback Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have burst onto the NFL scene as favorites for Rookie of the Year and potential MVP awards.
It may be the biggest game of Winston’s young NFL career, but it won’t be the first time Winston has seen the bright lights on a big stage.
And he won’t be blinded. He’s been there before.
While at Florida State, Winston was a larger-than-life personality. Whether he wanted it or not, all eyes were on him at all times.
En route to a national championship victory in 2014 against Auburn, Winston lived under a spotlight and a microscope.
Not only was his play scrutinized while vying for the chance to hoist the Heisman Trophy, nearly everything the young athlete did off the field was scrutinized just as much.
But once on the field, the outside world went dark and the stadium lights shined.
“It’s hard,” said Bucs kicker Roberto Aguayo, a teammate of Winston’s at FSU. “When you have all the off the field stuff, we all have it. It’s clutter off the field, whether it be family or friends or whatever, but the way he handled it at that young of an age.
“You think about it sometimes, like, all of this is going on, how is his mind even here? But he did it well and was able to separate it and that’s what you gotta do.”
When it came to the biggest game of his career to that point, the 2014 national championship game, his team needed its leader to come through.
Photo by: Getty Images
With just over a minute remaining in the game, FSU trailed by four. Where some quarterbacks might’ve collapsed under the pressure of the moment, Aguayo said Winston seized control.
“That’s one thing I fed off of at Florida State,” Aguayo said. “Going in there, I fed off of how comfortable he was and I don’t know if he fed off me, but, nothing really flustered him.”
With the potential game-winning drive within his grasp, Winston gathered the offense and did what he does best.
“He told the offensive line and all the wide receivers in the huddle he’s like, ‘Hey were driving down and we’re gonna win this,’” Aguayo said. “If I was an offensive lineman — obviously their thinking, ‘Oh my God, we have to score to win’ — to hear that from a quarterback, I bet you it calmed them down. Just to have that and how powerful that was for them to go down and score.
“Whatever he would put in his mind that he wanted to do and he wanted all of us to do, he’d get us to do it. That’s what a successful quarterback needs to have.”
Now in the NFL, not much has changed. Big games don’t matter to him, they’re just opportunities to show the world what he and his team can do.
“Not a lot of people have that trait,” receiver Mike Evans said of the team-oriented Winston. “He has a different element to his game that he enhances everybody else’s play with how he leads us. He’s one of the best leaders even though he’s one of the youngest players in the league.”
Winston’s maturity permeates through the team. His leadership in tight situations is a trait veterans on the team like wide receiver Russell Shepard haven’t come across often.