TAMPA — Decision time on Jameis Winston will come at the end of the season for the Bucs. But the choices their fifth-year quarterback made with the football Sunday had to be enough to make Bruce Arians question his reasoning for coming out of retirement.
Winston threw three interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns, spoiling Arians’ debut in a mistake-filled 31-17 loss to San Francisco.
The 49ers won Sunday’s game by default not by design.
Three plays wounded the Bucs, and as has been the case much of his career, Winston pulled the trigger at the wrong time on all of them.
“We talked about it at half and even before the game. That was the message: when we stop beating ourselves, we will be pretty good,’’ Arians said.
Winston started slowly Sunday, hitting just one of this first six pass attempts for 3 yards, including an interception on a pass that bounced off of the hands of tight end O.J. Howard, who also lost a fumble in the game.
In fact, the Bucs’ only score in the first half came on Vernon Hargreaves’ pick-six when he stepped in front of pass by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to running back Tevin Coleman and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown.
Fair or unfair, Winston earned the blame for much of what went wrong Sunday, even though some of his teammates’ fingerprints were also all over the loss.
The Bucs trailed 13-7 when Winston tried to connect with running back Peyton Barber on a hitch near the right sideline.
Barber was split out wide on the play, but he’s a bad matchup for a ball-hawking Pro Bowl cornerback like Richard Sherman. Winston’s throw was late and sailed outside, giving Sherman an easy path to the end zone for a 31-yard TD return.
“Peyton ran a hitch against a very good corner. It was just a bad decision to throw it to a running back versus him,’’ Arians said. “It was an okay route.’’
What fans didn’t see was that receiver Mike Evans, lined up on the other side of the formation, was supposed to run a hot route inside on a blitz.
“I’m supposed to get the ball on the hot situation and I didn’t run the hot,’’ said Evans, who battled illness and caught just two passes for 28 yards. “He’s waiting for me to run it. I left him out to dry right there.’’
Winston didn’t make any excuses. “I just got to put it on his body,’’ Winston said. “Anytime you’ve got a running back on a cornerback, you’ve got to be cautious with the throw. So make a better throw and it’s not a pick-six.’’
Winston got hot throwing the football on the next drive, stepping up in the pocket and rifling a 28-yard bullet to Chris Godwin. He capped the drive with a 10-yard TD pass to Godwin, cutting the 49ers lead to 20-14.
Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit,’’ gamble on fourth and goal from the 2-yard line prevented an easy field goal that could’ve cut the lead to 20-17 early in the fourth quarter. Winston tried to shoehorn a pass in to Godwin that safety Tarvarius Moore batted down.
“We had two in-breaking routes on the left side,’’ Winston said. “He was the only safety so he really didn’t have nobody to cover and made a good play.’’
The bone-crusher came when the Bucs took over at their 21 needing a touchdown to win with 2:11 left in the game.
On first down — first down! — running back Dare Ogunbowale got held up inside by linebacker Dre Greenlaw on a screen pass.
Winston threw the ball anyway, floating it into the waiting arms of Ahkello Witherspoon, who acted like a man who had just won the lottery as he high-stepped into the end zone.
Game. Set. Somebody got a match?
“He got held up there and I thought I was making a good throw,’’ Winston said. “He didn’t get out and ended up going right to the guy. So I’ve just got to throw it into the dirt. Something. That was just a matter of trust and a guy being there and they sniffed it out.’’
The aroma coming from Arians’ offense wasn’t a very good one Sunday.
The Bucs had their chances. Cameron Brate had not one but two touchdown receptions erased by not one but two holding penalties on tackle Demar Dotson on the same drive. Winston was sacked three times, twice by Nick Bosa.
Winston finished 20-of-36 passing for 194 yards with a touchdown and three picks. At times, he looked like he was walking on hot coals in the pocket and held the ball too long on occasion.
“I felt I was making decisive decisions with the ball,’’ Winston said. “They covered us up on some and some was just throwing it away and living another down. … But that interception going into the two-minute, that killed us right there to end the drive.’’
Arians, the self-proclaimed Quarterback Whisperer, has some work to do. He said he was fine with Winston other than the screen pass. And the decision to throw a hitch to a running back.
But decision-making is what Arians was hired to fix. “It’s still a thing of growth,’’ he said.
“I was fine with Jameis other than the screen pass … if you get a grounding, you get a grounding but don’t leave it on the field of play.’’
The 49ers are not a top-rung team. You don’t gift-wrap a game for them on opening day when you hired country singer Tim McGraw to perform a pregame concert and help fill up the empty seats at Raymond James Stadium.
In four days, the Bucs play at Carolina and have 0-2 staring them in the facemask. Winston now has 61 interceptions in 57 games.
He better start making better decisions or Arians and the Bucs won’t be left with much of one.
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLStroud