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Jameis Winston organized practices with NFL vets during ban

TAMPA -- The texts came on Monday or Tuesday, much in the way a coach lays out the work week for his players leading up to that Sunday's game. It was the schedule for the practice week and Saturday's mock game, and the sender was Jameis Winston.

The Bucs' temporarily exiled quarterback vowed to himself he wouldn't let his teammates outwork him during his three-game suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy. For that, he would need the help of about 20 to 25 players currently out of the NFL and looking for some good field work while trying to get their way back in the league. So Winston recruited those players, brought in his passing coach George Whitfield and longtime trainer Otis Leverette, scripted plays, headed to Tampa's Skyway Park and the University of South Florida fields and pretended to be the quarterback of a team for the three weeks Ryan Fitzpatrick got to do it for real.

All of it in the name of being ready once he returned to the team this week and to the practice field Wednesday.

"Team drills, 7-on-7, plays and stuff the Bucs are working on, we did it all. It was intense," veteran NFL wide receiver Louis Murphy said by phone Wednesday afternoon. "I helped out with the receivers and concepts because I know a little bit about what the Bucs are doing from my time there, but it was Jameis leading the way and we all followed his lead.

"It was all about staying positive through his downtime. He was just grinding. He looked great."

Winston's career is at a crossroads right now. The Bucs offered no guarantees he would reclaim his starting job and Fitzpatrick's play through the first three games (1,230 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions) has assured Winston will return as the backup this Sunday against the Bears, even if head coach Dirk Koetter continues to refuse to divulge his starter.

Part of the reason for the team's reluctance to declare Winston's job to be safe was they wanted to see how Fitzpatrick would play. The other part is they wanted to see how Winston would handle his suspension, which the NFL levied after an Uber driver accused Winston of groping her. (Winston apologized "for the position I put (the driver) in" and said he had eliminated alcohol from his life but did not admit to, or apologize for, the alleged groping.)

Koetter said on Wednesday that Winston returned to the team ready to perform and handled his suspension "like a pro."

While Winston will have to continue to prove he's worthy of being a franchise quarterback on and off the field, there's no question he made good use of the last three weeks on the practice field.

"I did my best impersonation of what it would be like as an in-season schedule being here," Winston told the media on Wednesday, in his first comments since returning from his suspension. "We did a lot of great things. After every practice I catered meals to my teammates just so I could have that team-building I missed here."

Winston bought those meals from different chain restaurants and even brought in a food truck one day. He provided the water and sports drinks during practices as well. All he asked in return was the players' best effort.

"I appreciate you coming out, but this isn't a jackaround session," Murphy recalls Winston telling them before the two- to three-hour practices.

Winston tried to recreate as much of the practice and game experience as he could. During "games," plays were radioed in from the sideline. Winston was the only participant in the practices to wear any equipment. Some days he wore just his helmet; on "game" days, he was fully padded.

"On 1 p.m. ET in Tampa, it's hot as heck," said Murphy, adding that he skipped only one practice during the three weeks because he was sore. "I told (Winston), 'Please don't fine me.'"

Murphy was the most experienced player on the field by far, though he said Winston received good looks from defenders such as Marko Myers, a rookie free agent who was with the Buccaneers in training camp. Murphy said he and Winston (teammates in Tampa in 2015) connected plenty on third downs and in the red zone, as situational football was a heavy emphasis for Winston in practice.

Winston said on Wednesday he pulled Murphy out of retirement to practice. But the 31-year-old Murphy, who was with the 49ers for seven games last season, insisted he still intends to play another two to three years. Surviving Winston's intense practices only helped validate his belief he still belongs in the NFL.

"I don't know what I'll do now" that Winston's practices are over, Murphy said with a laugh.

Winston was grateful for Murphy and the other players who showed up and helped him keep his mind and body on football for a few weeks.

"I love those guys, and I owe everything to them because they helped me prepare," Winston said. "It even boosted their confidence a little bit, getting a chance to work in an NFL system, go out there and compete against each other. It was practically like a little minicamp."

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