TAMPA — Jameis Winston grimaced in pain and needed extra time to hobble to the Bucs sideline at Raymond James Stadium after throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown. The play cemented a 34-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints with five minutes remaining Sunday.
But somehow despite a severely sprained left ankle, Winston talked coach Bruce Arians into letting him go back out onto the field a couple of minutes later, only to throw his fourth interception trying to connect with Mike Evans in the end zone.
And now 3-7 in the dark cellar of the NFC South, the Bucs season looks a lot like their bruised and beaten quarterback, limping along on one leg and trying to find a reason — any reason — to continue.
The 18 interceptions Winston has thrown this season already tied a career-high that he set in 2016, not exactly evidence of the improvement the Bucs hoped for when they hired Arians back in January.
At least, we think it’s 18.
Arians has his own unique way of calculating things.
“I would say he has 10, you know?’’ Arians said of Winston’s interceptions. “Guys dropping balls and giving them to the other team. How many have we seen? I don’t count those. Ten. He got hit low. The ankle, the last one flies out of his hand high. He probably should’ve come out of the game.’’
Certainly, one play that doomed the Bucs at the end of the first quarter would buttress Arians’ argument that what you get with Winston is not always what you see.
The Bucs had only four plays in the first quarter thanks to a hapless defense that was no match for Drew Brees, who passed for 228 yards and three touchdowns Sunday.
The Saints led 6-0 when Winston threw a pass to O.J. Howard. The Bucs tight end inexplicably lost control of the football, juggling it behind his back like a Harlem Globetrotter until he was hit by safety Marcus Williams and the ball popped into the hands of linebacker Demario Davis for an interception at the Tampa Bay 16-yard line.
On the next play, Brees connected with Michael Thomas for a touchdown. It was 20-0 a few minutes later.
Howard, who had a disastrous fumble in the season opener against San Francisco, has no explanation for losing the football.
“I was trying to get the ball and get protected, protect myself,’’ Howard said. “I lost the ball and it ended up behind me some kind of way.’’
Arians is less than enamored with Howard’s play.
“He’s a talented, talented guy,’’ Arians said. “But it’s not showing up on Sundays.’’
Here’s what else is not showing up on Sunday: a good game plan.
Defensively, the Bucs opted to go with their young defensive backs, having waived starter Vernon Hargreaves on Tuesday after he was benched for loafing on a play against the Cardinals.
You heard a lot during the week about rookie Jamel Dean, who made the game-changing interception in last week’s win over Arizona. But when the Bucs took the field Sunday, Dean was on the bench and the Bucs decided to move safety Mike Edwards into the slot instead.
“We played a lot more zone,'' Arians said. "(Dean) was more in the man-to-man group. We’ll fix that. He needs to be out there on the field.’’
Another thing the Bucs can fix is how to get Evans the football against the Saints.
In their first meeting, he had only three targets and no catches. Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who shut Evans down in the game at New Orleans, was out Sunday with a hamstring injury.
But Evans went without a catch and had only one target in the first half Sunday as the Saints deployed the same two-deep-safety zone they had used before. He finished with four catches for 69 yards.
“They did the exact same thing they did last time even with one of their best defenders out,’’ Evans said. “If I’m outside, it’s pretty much a double-team on me.’’
Winston’s favorite target Sunday was Cameron Brate, who tied a club record for tight ends with 10 catches that produced only 73 yards.
Meanwhile, Brees had no problem getting the football to Thomas, who finished with eight catches for 114 yards and a TD.
Arians didn’t just get beat by the Saints, he lost to the zebras again Sunday.
The Bucs trailed by 10 and were driving when Arians went for it on fourth-and-1 at midfield early in the fourth quarter. Evans caught a 6-yard pass from Winston for an apparent first down, but he was called for pass interference when he shoved cornerback P.J. Williams at the line of scrimmage.
Arians challenged the call and lost. Aware of an impending fine for being outspoken against officials, he declined to comment about the play Sunday.
“They already wrote up the letter for my fine,’’ Arians said. “You guys saw it. … You write what you saw. I’m not saying (expletive) about the officials.’’
Evans was dismayed by the penalty.
“The DB gets five yards to do whatever they want to do to us,'' he said. "We get one yard and I use that one yard. I’m a big, physical receiver and I thought I made a good play.’’
By the time Winston limped back on the field, the game was lost. No reason to put the potential franchise quarterback back in with a bad wheel.
Heck, it was backup Ryan Griffin’s 30th birthday, so why not let him get his first NFL regular-season snap?
Bad went to worse when Winston tossed his fourth interception. Evans stopped on the play because he thought he heard a whistle and the Bucs quarterback didn’t get enough on the ball, perhaps unable to step into the throw.
At least we think it was his fourth interception. Pretty sure it was the Bucs seventh loss against only three wins.
If you count those.
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLStroud