TAMPA, Fla. » Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota want no part of a debate over which of the Heisman Trophy winners is destined to have the best pro career, a discussion that’s sure to continue long after their first NFL meeting.
The top two overall picks in this year’s draft understand the intense interest in their highly anticipated debut against each other, but stress Sunday’s season opener is about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans — not which rookie quarterback has progressed the most since joining the teams that went 2-14 a year ago.
"It’s not about us. It’s about our teams. It’s the Bucs versus the Titans," said Winston, selected first by the Bucs and coming off their worst finish in nearly three decades. "I’d rather the headline be the score than something about individual players."
Mariota, taken second by Tennessee after winning the only head-to-head meeting between the young passers in college last January, also plays down the personal rivalry angle.
The past two Heisman winners worked out together in San Diego in preparation for the NFL scouting combine, respect each other’s abilities and expect one another to be successful pros.
Mariota rejects the nation, though, that their careers figure to always be subject to comparison because of where they were picked in the draft.
"That’s for you guys, that’s your opinion," the Titans quarterback told reporters this week.
"I learned a long time ago not to compare myself to anyone else, and my dad always said just to focus on what you’re doing, find ways that you can get better and the rest will take care of itself," the 2014 Heisman winner from Oregon added. "I think Jameis is a great player, I think he’ll have a great career. But for us, I think we’re just going to focus on what we’ve got to do within our teams and do our best to be the best players that we can be."
Winston, who won the 2013 Heisman while leading Florida State to a national championship, are the sixth pair of quarterbacks selected one-two in same draft, joining Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning (1971), Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer (1993), Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf (1998), Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb (1999), and Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (2012).
Bledsoe and Mirer, as well as Manning and Leaf, faced each other as rookies. This is the first time, though, that No. 1 has gone against No. 2 in a season opener.
Bucs coach Lovie Smith has watched Winston’s progression through OTAs, training camp and preseason and believes his young quarterback is ready for the challenge.
Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt is equally impressed with Mariota’s development.
"I think Lovie had a great point the other day. There’s nothing to say both these guys can’t be good," Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "They got their quarterback. We got our quarterback. All that stuff is water under the bridge. How it all shook out really doesn’t matter at this point."
Some things to consider as Winston and Mariota launch their careers:
LEBEAU FACTOR: The Bucs had difficulty protecting Winston during the preseason, and the Winston figures what Koetter refers to as a "pressure fest" again with Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau and Titans coordinator Ray Horton drawing up Tennessee’s defensive game plan. Titans LB Brian Orakpo, cautions that it won’t be as simple as taking advantage of a young quarterback’s inexperience. "He went No. 1 for a reason, so we definitely can’t take that lightly," Orakpo said.
YOUNG BUCS: Winston is one of four rookie starters for Tampa Bay. Left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet are among three newcomers on the offensive line. Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, a fourth-round draft choice, is expected to handle defensive calls in his debut.
YOUTHFUL TITANS: Mariota will be one of two rookies starting on offense for Tennessee. Right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi also will be making his NFL debut against the Bucs after being the Titans’ third-round pick out of Utah.
FOUR WIDE RECEIVERS: The Titans gambled a bit keeping only four receivers with five tight ends. Starting receivers Kendall Wright and Harry Douglas each posted 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2013, but rookie Dorial Green-Beckham is coming off a sprained left ankle.
MUST-WIN? Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy thinks it is for the Bucs, who’ve lost nine straight regular season home games. "It’s a huge game for us," McCoy said. "A lot of people say, it’s the first game, it’s a long season. Well, not when you went 2-14 and you didn’t win any games at home last year."