CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made sure nearly everyone got an official NFL football for Christmas.
LeGarrette Blount gave one to Carolina linebacker James Anderson, fumbling a handoff on the Bucs' first offensive play Saturday. Josh Freeman tossed one to defensive back Jonathan Nelson for an interception to start the third quarter. Kellen Winslow presented one to defensive tackle Andre Neblett. Sammie Stroughter donated another to linebacker Jason Williams.
The Bucs (4-11) turned the ball over four times, gift-wrapping half of the Panthers' points in a 48-16 loss at Bank of America Stadium, their ninth defeat in a row.
In fact, so charitable was the Bucs offense that Carolina got into the spirit after it reached the end zone.
Cam Newton, who broke Peyton Manning's NFL rookie passing yardage record while throwing three touchdowns and running for another, handed a football to a young fan in the first row after his 91-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell. Later, after Newton's 49-yard scoring run, LaFell took the football and gave it to another fan.
"When one person does one thing, everybody else does it," Newton said. "Brandon got on me because I took his touchdown ball and gave it away. So I gave him my touchdown ball and he gave it away. It's just the added dimension of just the fun we have on the field."
Unfortunately for the Bucs, when the obituary is written on the 2011 season, the cause of death will be turnovers. In its first six games, Tampa Bay went 4-2 and committed eight turnovers. During this nine-game losing streak, the Bucs have given away footballs 28 times.
"That's exactly it. That's the story of the season — turnovers," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "You cannot expect to win games turning the football over. The four turnovers (Saturday) led to points. Those things can't happen. That was the difference between this year and last year.
"Last year, we didn't turn the ball over. This year, we're not able to maintain possession, we're not able to keep people off the field, we're not able to keep people on the field to wear them down. … That caused the lopsided margins. That's making us look uncompetitive. That's causing meltdowns. That's causing poor (defense). That's causing out-of-character offense. All these are happening because of turnovers. When those things happen, it's a downhill spiral."
Blount, who had fumbled four times (losing three) in his previous five games, was benched for the remainder of the first half after dropping the handoff from Freeman. Statistically, the fumble was credited to Freeman, but the quarterback and Morris put the blame squarely on Blount, who also said it was his fault.
"To not be able to execute the first play of the football game is unacceptable," Morris said. "They're obviously not ready to play. You've got to bring the other guys in. I'm not ready to quit on (Blount), but certainly (Saturday) wasn't his day. You can't let your team down that way."
The Bucs defense also did its part. Newton and running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined to rush 20 times for 219 yards. Even though they practiced stopping the Panthers' spread option all week, the Bucs seemed helpless against it.
"It's like college football," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "You get ready for this week and you feel like you're back at your alumni trying to get a big option guy down on the ground. (Newton's) difficult."
The first time Newton played the Bucs, he ran for three touchdowns and passed for another while breaking the NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 13. On Saturday, he passed for three touchdowns and ran for another in breaking Manning's rookie record of 3,739 passing yards.
"We go out and do this all … week," Bucs defensive tackle Roy Miller said. "It's like Rah says, 'How can we do this in practice all week and come in a game and not do it?' You're sad, because you're looking at Rah because he's taking all this. You fumble the ball, you give up a 91-yard (pass). You can't coach that. We're coached every day to stop that. He's taking all the blame and that's bad, man. That's bad."
If there was a silver lining, it's that the Bucs finally decided to spread the field on offense with three receivers and allow Freeman to increase the tempo out of the shotgun. Freeman completed 28 of 38 passes for 274 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 91.3. He also rushed for a score.
"I really like the offense we were in today, utilizing me as a quarterback to get into a rhythm and spread the ball around," Freeman said. "I feel like it gets everybody involved."
It also seemed every Bucs player was involved in the gift exchange program on Christmas Eve.
Good thing there's only one game left. They're about to run out of footballs.
Game time moved
The Tampa Bay at Atlanta game on Jan. 1 has been moved to 4:15 p.m. due to NFL flex scheduling.