TAMPA — Before the Bucs' furious comeback fell short in the final eight minutes Sunday, before safety Dashon Goldson dropped a pass from Carolina fill-in quarterback Derek Anderson at the Panthers 30 while trailing by a field goal, before running back Bobby Rainey lost a fumble with 87 seconds remaining to send 62,442 at Raymond James Stadium to the exits, something unexpected happened that spoiled coach Lovie Smith's debut.
Cucumber cool quarterback Josh McCown, at 35, made two rookie-like decisions that led to interceptions and were the difference in the 20-14 loss to the Panthers.
The fact that it was McCown, handpicked by Smith because he protects the football like a family heirloom, is what made it so shocking. And in each case, McCown said he should have swallowed the football instead of coughing it up.
"I'll own this one," McCown said. "The coaches did a good job. Everyone did a good job. I made a couple bad decisions that hurt our team and put us in a bad situation."
The interceptions helped dig a 17-0 hole that the Bucs nearly crawled out of against the Cam Newton-less Panthers. McCown rallied his team with touchdown passes of 19 yards to Chris Owusu and 6 yards to Rainey during the fourth quarter.
But after being intercepted only once among 224 passes with the Bears last season, McCown was picked off twice among his first 16 Sunday.
The first interception came late in the first quarter. Two plays after fullback Jorvorskie Lane rumbled 54 yards across midfield, McCown was pressured, spun and tried to flip a pass to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins that was intercepted by cornerback Antoine Cason. The turnover led to a 15-play drive that ended with Anderson's 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olson (eight catches, 83 yards).
"I just was going down, trying to make a play, and it was ill-advised," McCown said.
On the next turnover, McCown handled the football as if it were a wet bar of soap. He took the shotgun snap and aimed at rookie receiver Mike Evans in the left flat. The ball slipped out of his hand, bounced back to him and slipped again as the too-late pass was intercepted by safety Roman Harper.
"I knew the play was dead. I was trying to throw it over Mike's head and regroup, and it slipped again," said McCown, who finished 22-of-35 for 183 yards. "It was unfortunate. I should've just tried to eat it. Those things can't happen. They absolutely can't happen. It's 100 percent on me."
Of course, there was plenty of blame to go around Sunday — and a knee injury that forced Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to leave the game during the first half.
Smith believed the Bucs defense should have fared better against Anderson, who prior to Sunday had attempted only four NFL passes since 2010. He got the start over Newton, who was inactive with a pair of cracked ribs, and completed 24 of 30 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns.
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"He was just unhappy," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said of Newton, who is expected to start next week. "He wanted to play so bad in the worst way."
Unable to get pressure with their four linemen, the Bucs had a 42-15 disadvantage in offensive plays in the first half. Of their 83 total yards before halftime, 80 came on Lane's run and a 26-yard catch by Seferian-Jenkins. Tampa Bay couldn't run the football with Doug Martin limited to 9 yards on as many carries.
Smith also pointed a finger at the defense. With the Bucs having closed to 17-14, Goldson dropped a sure interception — with a decent chance at returning it for a touchdown — at the Panthers 30 with 1:47 left.
"I think that would have sealed the deal," Goldson said. "I just missed it. No excuse. I just missed it."
Smith was disappointed with the way his team played but encouraged by the way it finished.
"We can talk about everything that went wrong in the game," he said. "But in the end, we had a chance to intercept the ball down three points, on the plus side, and go in at least for a field goal. Then once we got the ball, we fumbled it. Those two really just kind of knocked us out."
McCown believes the Bucs will be better Sunday against the Rams. He knows he can be better.
"When you go out and have a couple mistakes like that," he said, "it eats at you."
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. Follow @NFLStroud.