CINCINNATI — Jameis Winston always plays with enough fire to light the Bucs. But he has been burned by it, too.
That's why the gunslinger quarterback sat in coach Dirk Koetter's office at the start of training camp and asked, "How much is doing too much?"
Winston discovered some answers in Friday's 23-12 preseason-opening loss to the Bengals. He was patient. He was surgical. He spread the ball around. He drove it downfield when he had time. He checked it to his running backs and tight ends when he did not.
Showing he can play with a resting pulse rate, Winston calmly completed his first four passes and drove the offense 92 yards in the Bucs' first series.
He did everything but finish with a touchdown. The opening drive stalled after two fade passes in the end zone to Mike Evans fell incomplete, the second of which could have been a holding penalty on Bengals cornerback Adam Jones.
Kicker Roberto Aguayo made a 20-yard field goal to give the Bucs a 3-0 lead. (He would later clank an extra-point attempt off the right upright and miss a field goal from 47 yards.)
Winston finished 9 of 13 passing for 99 yards. He spread the ball around with completions to Evans, Cameron Brate, Adam Humphries, Jacquizz Rodgers and DeSean Jackson, who took the Hardest Knock from Bengals linebacker Kevin Minter.
"It just seems every year Jameis takes another step," Brate said. "He's always been a great leader. I think the biggest thing he's done is kind of maintained his emotions. Sometimes he gets too excited, and he's controlled that consistently throughout camp, and you saw it (Friday), too."
Unfortunately for the Bucs, their offense began the game backed up to the north bank of the Ohio River, the result of a bad decision by Ryan Smith to bring the opening kickoff out of the end zone and a penalty.
"Any time you get a chance to face adversity on your first drive as a team, you see how we react to it," Winston said. "I believe we did well. We definitely didn't get stopped by (the Bengals). We stopped ourselves."
On their second try, the Bucs took over at their 1-yard line when cornerback Vernon Hargreaves intercepted a pass from Andy Dalton intended for Brandon LaFell.
"Those are morale killers down there," Hargreaves said. "I just took a chance. There's not a lot of space behind me, so I took a chance being aggressive, and I happened to make a play."
Winston was effective moving the Bucs out of trouble again, but his pass on third and 2 at the Tampa Bay 30 was a little behind Evans and fell incomplete.
For the most part, Winston felt comfortable targeting the players who are not new to the offense. Evans had four catches for 58 yards.
"We've done a lot of work the last couple years," said Brate, who had two catches for 27 yards. "He was looking toward us a little bit, but O.J. (Howard) and DeSean will get theirs."
Jackson is going to be a big, big part of this offense. He already creates a ton of space for running backs and receivers; the Bengals kept a safety over the top when he was in the game.
Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick took over from Winston early in the second quarter and led the Bucs to a touchdown, scoring on a 6-yard run (which was followed by Aguayo's missed extra point), and later drove his team to a 45-yard field goal by Nick Folk.
Quarterback Ryan Griffin left the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury.
It wasn't a particularly good showing by the defense, despite Hargreaves' heroics. The Bengals took the lead in the third quarter when former Florida and Louisiana Tech quarterback Jeff Driskel ran for a score and threw for one against the second unit.
"We were kind of feeling things out, and we were a little rusty," tackle Gerald McCoy said. "I think that showed."
Aguayo's missed field goal came with 1:03 left in the game after quarterback Sefo Liufau led the Bucs from their 25 to the Bengals' 29 following a Cincinnati field goal.
"I keep saying it, but it's true," coach Dirk Koetter said. "If you're a kicker, you have to make your kicks."
By far, the biggest takeaway from the game was how Winston wasn't about to give the ball away. A year ago, he threw 18 interceptions and lost six fumbles. Eight picks came in the first four games as the Bucs started 1-3.
Winston knows he can do more for the offense than he did in two series Friday. But he's learning when not doing too much is enough.