Inside Jameis Winston's first week of camp: The 'elephant in the room'

Jameis Winston spent the Bucs' first day of training camp practice getting a large portion of reps with the third-team offense. Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston stood at the center of a large ring of reporters who were firing off a barrage of questions for 10 minutes on Thursday.

"Jameis, given the issues you had at Florida State, can you explain how you keep putting yourself in this position?"

"What do you say to the fans who are disappointed in you and who don't believe you should be their starting quarterback moving forward?"

"How long has it been since you stopped drinking alcohol?"

"Have you been evaluated for alcohol abuse, or are you in a program right now? Is alcohol a banned substance for you?"

"In November, you put out a statement saying that the driver was mistaken, that this did not happen. Were you being truthful then, or did your memory get better?"

Thursday marked the first time Winston faced the media since the NFL suspended him for three games for inappropriately touching a female Uber driver in March 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Moments after the hard questioning, about 200 yards away from the swarm, Winston met with a group of fans, a group that included a child in a wheelchair. Anyone around the team will tell you that those types of moments away from the cameras are a daily occurrence for Winston.

But things haven't been the norm this season. Winston has gone from the face of the franchise and darling of HBO's "Hard Knocks" to having some fans refuse to wear his jersey and even refuse to root for the team. One lifelong fan mailed his jersey to One Buc Place, saying he can no longer don Winston's gear.

Winston's role with the team is different, too. Coach Dirk Koetter asked him to take a quieter role so that others can speak up as they prepare for the 2018 season to start without him.

"Being a leader starts with being the leader of yourself," Koetter said. "I think that is one of Jameis' strengths as a football player. But right now, it is time for Jameis to lead from the rear. Nothing wrong with that."

Winston spent the Bucs' first day of practice getting a large portion of reps with the third-team offense, while Ryan Fitzpatrick worked on his chemistry with the starters and Ryan Griffin got work with the second team. As a 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, 2015 first-round draft pick and 2015 Pro Bowler, the demotion of sorts has been new territory for Winston.

In his first seven-on-seven period of camp, instead of scrambling and throwing to tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard, Winston found Donnie Ernsberger, an undrafted rookie out of Western Michigan, in the flat.

"It's cool for them," Brate said of younger players getting a chance to work with Winston. "We've got a roster cut coming up in about a month. Realistically, some of these guys, it's gonna be the last stop in the NFL for them. So they can walk away knowing that they caught passes from him. I'm sure that will be a cool story to tell one day."

Winston is used to throwing to Pro Bowl-caliber receivers in tight windows -- not players running the wrong routes as they struggle to learn their first NFL playbooks. At times, it wasn't pretty.

"The way Jameis is, being the ultimate competitor, I'm sure it's been hard for him," Brate said. "But above that, he's a great teammate."

Winston has a starter's mentality, but he understands that his job is to help these player get better.

"I think it accelerates some of the rookies that he's working with," safety Keith Tandy said. "They've got a higher sense of urgency because they're working with Jameis Winston.

"[He's] sitting down and explaining the details and really explaining to them the why: why we want you to line up on the edge of the numbers and not a yard outside the number, like really explaining to guys why. I've seen him in the shower talking to guys. I'm like, 'Let this man shower, man.' That's Jameis for you."

Koetter: 'We have to deal with it'

But who is Jameis Winston? In November, a BuzzFeed report surfaced with a female Uber driver accusing Winston of grabbing her crotch in March 2016 at a drive-thru of a Mexican restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The Bucs were in the middle of trying to salvage a season that was quickly slipping away. Winston was trying to rehabilitate a shoulder injury. For many teammates, the hard questions about what happened didn't come until the league handed down the suspension.

"You know, it's disappointing. It's disappointing that Jameis put himself in that position and put our team in that position, but at this point, it's done, and we have to deal with it," Koetter said.

"It kind of threw me for a little bit," wide receiver Freddie Martino said. "Everything's always a surprise, but at the same time, it's the NFL."

It didn't change Martino's perception of Winston, though.

"I know Jameis. I know the type of person he is," Martino said. "He's a stand-up guy. That just lets you know that everyone makes mistakes."

How did Fitzpatrick, a father of six with three daughters, take the news?

"Everybody has a clean slate when I meet them. I judge people based off what I see," Fitzpatrick said. "He's an amazing guy, and that hasn't changed. I haven't seen anything different to change that."

Since he was selected by the Bucs first overall in the 2015 draft, Winston had no reported off-the-field issues in Tampa. Other than his comments to an elementary school class in which, attempting to draw from biblical references, he said women should be "silent, polite and gentle," he had built an enormous amount of goodwill in the Tampa Bay community.

Fast-forward to the present, though, and Winston's face is noticeably absent from the player murals outside Raymond James Stadium, where he'd been a fixture the past two seasons. He was also left out of the team's video promotions that were released prior to training camp.

Brate: 'Situation that no one wants to be in'

When camp started on Wednesday, Winston was noticeably different. Tight end Alan Cross, whose locker sits two over from Winston's, could see it. He was quieter. He wasn't skipping out onto the field, jumping up and down.

"I don't know if he was trying to do something different or try to be a different type of leader in regards to just actions on the field," Cross said. "But as days went on, he got back to the same old Jameis, same old leadership, goofing around and jumping around, for sure."

A big part of that was addressing, as teammates have put it, the "elephant in the room." Winston faced the team. He apologized for being a distraction and putting his teammates in a position in which they'd be without their starting quarterback for three games.

"I think it was something that had to be done," Brate said. "I thought he handled it really well. Not easy to do, a situation that no one wants to be in, but he kind of explained what he knew of that night. Guys on the team are gonna be supportive of him just like anyone else on the team. It's just kind of what we do as a team, we help our brothers out."

Added Tandy: "I think it's big [that he] addressed it because then you don't have guys wondering what's going on and wondering because we were all sitting back and finding out the same way the media finds out: when stuff gets posted on Twitter or the internet. So when he addressed it, it was like, 'OK. Appreciate it. We've still got your back. We're still gonna fight for you.'

"I didn't really have any questions. Just, like, being in this league, I've seen a lot of stuff happen. You get surprised every day, but nothing really surprises me. So I was just like, 'Dang, I don't want that to happen to anybody on either side.'"

ESPN spoke with several teammates on and off the record. Some made it clear that their support doesn't mean condoning the type of behavior Winston was accused of and for which the league is punishing him.

"It's definitely hard. Especially right now, we all know that it's a sensitive topic right now," Tandy said.

"That's my boy, one of my best friends. ... Obviously I was hurt by [the suspension]," Mike Evans said. "I don't know the whole situation, and nobody does but the people [who] were there, so I won't speak too much on that."

Cross added: "It's like when your brother or sister gets in trouble. We all make mistakes in life, regardless of what it is, on and off the field, so you live, you learn, and you just move on in life. ... It's just a dark cloud, over this team, over the franchise, over him and his family."

Some of Winston's teammates say he's capable of and committed to change, and they point to his giving up alcohol as a step in the right direction.

"That goes back to being a man. It takes a lot of guts to admit that," said Cross, who thinks Winston can help himself by addressing the issue head-on.

"Ray Rice goes around and speaks on what he did and the things that you shouldn't do and how you should treat people and things like that," Cross said. "I think if [Winston] might do things like that, if anybody has lost trust or anything, that would be the best thing."

Wilson: 'I know he's gonna be ready'

Many members of the team believe Winston will still be their starting quarterback in Week 4.

"When Jameis gets back, I know he's gonna be full-throttle," said wide receiver Bobo Wilson, who is among the players staying late to work with Winston. "I know he's gonna be ready."

"If you're here early enough, most likely he's the first one here, he's the first one leaving the hotel, he's the last one leaving the facility," Martino said.

Interestingly, though, Koetter wouldn't commit to a starting quarterback beyond the first three games.

"Week 4 is a long ways away, so let's worry about Week 4 in Week 4," Koetter said. "Right now, let's worry about preseason and getting ready for the Saints."

Although the team is trying to avoid any on-field distractions, some would argue that comments such as this from Koetter and the fact that Winston has been relegated to working with third-stringers are making Winston and the suspension more of a distraction. Still, Koetter has praised Winston in his new role.

"Jameis is an incredible teammate in what he says to guys one-on-one," Koetter said. "He's a motivating guy. He was already doing that. As we sit here right now, we have other leaders on the team ... and we need those guys to be a little bit more vocal and be a little bit more out front. We're going to need those guys to be the out-front guys those first games until things change."

When Winston has gotten work in with the first team, it has been night-and-day compared to the third unit. In the Bucs' first practice open to the general public Sunday, he heaved a perfectly thrown, 60-yard bomb to DeSean Jackson, with fans erupting in approval. It was the deep-ball connection they've longed for and the reason they have hope that Winston can rebound in 2018, both on and off the field.

The Bucs already picked up the fifth-year option on Winston's contract, worth $21 million, but the Bucs could theoretically cut him prior to the league year beginning March 13, 2019, with zero financial implications. Then there's the matter of a new contract, which would be in excess of $100 million, the going rate for starting quarterbacks.

After practice Sunday, Winston was one of the last to leave the field because a large number of fans were waiting to get his autograph. One man was there with his 5-year-old son, who'd made a sign asking Winston for a selfie. Winston happily obliged, fulfilling the little boy's wishes and signing the sign itself.

Moments later, Winston walked out the side door of the Bucs' indoor facility and onto the practice field. He went over to where Wilson was standing.

"You ready?" Winston asked.

"Yep!" Wilson said.