TAMPA, Fla. -- The big message that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coaching staff gave to quarterback Jameis Winston when he returned to the facility this offseason had nothing to do with cutting down on turnovers or throwing more touchdowns in the red zone.
Those are unquestionably areas where he has to improve, but the real message the coaches wanted to impart entering his fourth year, as offensive coordinator Todd Monken put it: "Stop trying so hard."
They could see it in his performance on the field, but they could also really see it in the locker room with how he tried to lead his teammates.
"I think the best way to put it is, in our league, there's so much pressure put on coaches and [on] that [quarterback] position," said Monken, now in his third year with the Bucs. "Nobody gets the credit either way, winning or losing, [more] than the quarterback or the coaches. That's fine. That's the way it is.
"No one is going to blame [wideout] Mike Evans for why we haven't made the playoffs; they've got the quarterback in there, and that's part of it. We get that. That doesn't mean we don't all own it. But I think the biggest thing is, 'OK, Jameis, it's OK to be yourself. You don't have to try so hard. The guys know you are naturally our leader.'
"But at times, it's hard. It's hard when you're hurt. It's hard when you're not winning the way you want and you're trying so hard to get the guys because [you] want to win so bad -- we all do. I try too hard sometimes, because I want it so bad."
Winston suffered a sprained acromioclavicular joint (AC joint) in the throwing shoulder of his right arm in Week 3 last season against the Minnesota Vikings. He didn't appear on the injury report until Week 7, after he left a game against the Arizona Cardinals with the injury, but sources close to him have said the injury initially occurred against the Vikings. It forced him to miss three games, and in the games he did try to play, it impacted his velocity and accuracy downfield.
Dealing with the injury during the first of two five-game losing streaks, Winston was still trying to give some of his "rah-rah" pregame speeches, like the one in Week 9 before the Bucs played the New Orleans Saints about "eating W's." Winston stuck his fingers in his mouth to form the shape of a W and asked teammates, "How many of you want to eat a W tonight? How many of you want to eat a W?"
After having lost four games in a row, the response from teammates caught on camera was less than enthusiastic -- as it appeared Winston was acting more like the Bucs were riding a four-game win streak -- and the quarterback was widely criticized in the media for appearing out of touch. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson empathized with Winston.
"Any time you're the face of the franchise and you're that guy as far as the quarterback, especially, everything is ran around you. At the end of the day, it's a tough position because you have to make the calls, you have to be the leader and you have to say the right things. Any time you say the wrong things, it's pointed on you," Jackson said.
When a team is losing or when a star quarterback clearly doesn't have his fastball, often times players need a more honest approach -- not the stuff that lights up the cameras on HBO's "Hard Knocks." They need a toned-down message or they need to hear new voices. For someone such as Winston, who had never missed a game because of injury at any level and never lost a regular-season game in two years as a starting quarterback at Florida State, that's still unfamiliar territory.
"He has natural leadership qualities, a toughness about him, guys want to follow him," Monken said. "It's OK to fail. You're human. It's OK to be hurt. It's OK to have that side of you. Let's just go. You don't have to try so hard. The guys will follow you. Just be yourself."
After the game at New Orleans, when Winston was sidelined in Week 10 with the injury, Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter selected offensive lineman Ali Marpet and linebacker Lavonte David -- two players known more for what they do rather than what they say -- to address the team the night before the next contest.
Marpet reminded players of their core philosophies. David acknowledged the reality of being 2-6 at the time and told them that they had to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Several teammates credited their speeches for being a factor in the Bucs' 15-10 home win against the New York Jets.
Winston offered his support when David continued to address the team, even after Winston had returned from injury.
"It's really whoever wants to speak and talk to the team and address the team. I haven't played," Winston said. "It's good to see different forms of leadership and different forms of communication with guys, because some people react to different things. I'm so happy Lavonte has stepped up into that role and has done a great job."
Jackson also believes Winston needed to stop trying so hard.
Jackson told ESPN's "First Take" that he pulled Winston aside last season and told him that he needed to "have fun" again, to "[stop] trying to impress the world" and to "just be [yourself]."
"You try to impress and say, 'Hey, I want to do this,' and show them 'I can do this or show them I can do this or that.' But you've got to kind of get away from that and just going back to playing ball in the yard, how we were playing when we were young," Jackson said. "That's what I tell him: 'You've got to [get] back to getting comfortable and being Jameis Winston,' who we all know he can be. The past two years, he had 4,000 yards passing, so I just stressed onto him -- everything, all the intangibles -- he has everything."
Most agreed that Winston started to look and act more like himself toward the end of the season, and coincidentally, he was healthy. In the final five weeks, he threw for 1,584 yards -- more than any other quarterback in the NFL over that span -- and threw nine touchdown passes, third most in the league. He also set career highs in completion percentages in Week 15 against the Atlanta Falcons (77.1 percent) and again in Week 16 against the Carolina Panthers (77.8 percent).
"I wouldn't say he was pulled in the wrong direction or whatever the case may be," Jackson said. "I would just say he needed to be himself and relax and not put the pressure on his shoulders, because being a quarterback you have the world on your shoulders. If you lose, it goes on you. If you win, it goes on you."
Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian emphasized it's still Winston's team and that the QB has the full support of the locker room and coaching staff.
"He's always done a great job of being himself, and if you know Jameis, you grow to love him -- that relationship with him, his teammates and this coaching staff exists," Bajakian said. "It's, 'Hey, you don't have to do any more than [the next guy] -- do what you do and be yourself. Keep working the way you work. Keep interacting with teammates the way you interact with them and the wins will come.'"