TAMPA — After falling into the dark and dank cellar of the NFC South, it's awfully hard for the Bucs to see any of the goals they visualized for this season.
The chance to win a division championship has vanished. Hope of reaching the playoffs has faded from view. A winning record? Disappeared.
So after the Bucs' 38-19 loss to rookie quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers on Sunday — their sixth straight defeat to drop to 4-8 — Bucs players said there was still something to play for:
Save the jobs of coach Raheem Morris and his staff.
"We've got to turn it around," linebacker Geno Hayes said. "It's not only our jobs. They've got a family to feed as well. Our play dictates their stability. We love our coaches. We've got to find a way to get everything back on track."
Safety Tanard Jackson said, "This is a business. We're in the business where if you don't win, a lot of changes will be made."
And center Jeff Faine, a nine-year veteran, added, "I've been in this business long enough where if we continue to slide, something is going to change, unfortunately. So personally, there's a lot to play for."
Playing without starting quarterback Josh Freeman, who was inactive due to a right shoulder injury, the Bucs traded touchdowns for field goals with Newton and the Panthers.
Newton added another record to his historic rookie season, running for three touchdowns and throwing for another. He now has 13 rushing touchdowns, the most by a quarterback in a season in NFL history, surpassing Steve Grogan's 12 in 1976 with New England.
Bucs backup Josh Johnson, making his first start since 2009, passed for 229 yards with one touchdown and an interception and led the Bucs with 45 rushing yards. But the offense produced only four field goals by Connor Barth until Johnson hit Dezmon Briscoe for a 23-yard touchdown with 6:35 remaining in the game.
Johnson's biggest mistake came during the first drive of the second half.
Trailing 24-12 and facing third and 8 at the Carolina 30, he attempted to call an audible. But Faine misinterpreted the signal as part of the cadence and snapped the ball before Johnson was ready. The error was compounded when Johnson tried to throw the ball under pressure.
It was tipped and intercepted by defensive end Thomas Keiser.
The Bucs drove inside the Panthers 35 seven times but came away with four field goals, one interception, one touchdown and one fourth-down failure.
"The grade is simple. It's not good enough," Johnson said of his performance. "As an offense, we're disappointed. We got in the red zone … repeatedly, and we came away with field goals, field goals, field goals."
The Panthers weren't interested in field goals, and the Bucs defense was equally bad against the run and the pass. Jonathan Stewart (14 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown), DeAngelo Williams (11 carries for 29 yards) and Newton (14 rushes for 54 yards and three touchdowns) combined for 163 yards on the ground. Newton was 12-for-21 passing for 204 yards and even had a 27-yard catch.
The Bucs also had nine penalties for 73 yards.
It got so bad that Morris ejected defensive tackle Brian Price from the game after his personal foul penalty in the third quarter. Morris also used an expletive during his postgame news conference describing why he did it.
"Yes, I sent him to the locker room," Morris said. "I told him go home. (Expletive) yeah. Because it's foolish. It's selfish to your teammates, to everybody in your organization, to your fans. That's terrible. That's just selfish behavior to get a 15-yard penalty in that situation when that's all we talk about, when that's all we discuss.
"You just can't do that to your team."
Why hasn't Morris been able to get his message across?
"They're not listening," Morris said. "They've got to listen, and we've got to do a better job of coaching.
"The thing I need to do right now is go back and make sure we continue to build the team for the future. We've got a lot of young players. I don't want things to get away from us."
It if does, Faine said, change is the only thing the Bucs can count on.
"I love the situation (with Morris)," Faine said. "I know my teammates love the situation we're in from an organizational standpoint, from the way our leadership is here, the way our coaching staff is here. We've got to finish on an incline if we want it to stay that way."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.