Jameis Winston's mistakes doom Bucs against Panthers

Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman (24) returns an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter of a game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015.
Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman (24) returns an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter of a game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015.
Published Oct. 5, 2015

TAMPA — A steady rain sent fans ducking under ponchos at Raymond James Stadium by the end of the national anthem Sunday. On the second play of the game against the Panthers, Bucs rookie quarterback Jameis Winston did not handle the exchange of a wet football from center Joe Hawley, resulting in a lost fumble.

Then on his first pass attempt, Winston stared down tight end Brandon Myers and Panthers cornerback Josh Norman broke on the ball for an easy interception he returned 46 yards for a touchdown.

The sun played peekaboo through the clouds all afternoon as the turnovers kept coming at a torrential pace for the Bucs and their wet-behind-the-ears quarterback.

Winston threw four interceptions and, combined with the lost fumble, his turnovers led to 27 points in Carolina's 37-23 win.

Winston might have the size, the arm and the pedigree to become a very good, if not great, NFL quarterback. But the position is played from the shoulders up, and that part he struggled with again.

"I think he's making some rookie mistakes," coach Lovie Smith said. "We'd like for him to be a vet. We've seen signs he can be a great player. But with that, though, we're not there yet. There will be growing pains. He's a rookie that just played his fourth NFL game. I mean, that's a part of it. Things like that happen."

The loss dropped the Bucs to 1-3 and was their 11th straight loss at home. It was reminiscent of Winston's debut, in which his first NFL pass was also a pick-six at Raymond James Stadium.

"It's surprising to myself, to who I think I am as a player, who I believe I am," Winston said. "But you bounce back. You don't think badly about yourself. You don't get down.

"This is what God made me to do. I'm blessed to have the opportunity to be on the field. But one thing you have to do, you've got to take the heat and keep going."

When Winston wasn't giving the ball away, kicker Kyle Brindza was sabotaging any chance of the Bucs getting back into the game.

The rookie from Notre Dame was given a pardon by Smith, who decided to stick with him after he missed three field goals and an extra point in a 19-9 loss the week before at Houston.

But Brindza rewarded that confidence by missing a 29-yard field goal that would have cut the Panthers' lead to 17-13 at the end of the first half. Then, after Panthers quarterback Cam Newton fumbled a handoff attempt to start the third quarter, Brindza missed a field goal from 43 yards. For good measure, he missed another point after.

The second missed field goal prompted former Bucs kicker Connor Barth, who was released for Brindza in training camp, to post on Twitter, "I'm just saying, I am available for the right price. #freeagent."

Smith stopped well short of guaranteeing Brindza would be on the team come today.

"I'm not going to start kicking people off in the press conference after the game," Smith said. "I'm disappointed in Kyle's play. … Hindsight now, of course, you don't like the result."

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The Bucs did have some breakout performances. Running back Doug Martin rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown, only the second time in the past 19 games he passed the century rushing mark. Receiver Vincent Jackson had 10 catches for 147 yards and a touchdown.

The Bucs outgained the Panthers in total yards 411-244. Newton passed for only 124 yards and two touchdowns, but he also was the Panthers' leading rusher with 51 yards.

But the Bucs couldn't overcome Winston's mistakes.

"Guys, let's keep in mind with Jameis, he's a young quarterback," Smith said. "This happens with young quarterbacks. They don't play the way you want them to, the way they should, the way they're capable of playing. But in time they will. We have to work through this."

Winston was harder on himself. Before the fumble, he said, he should've asked the referee for a new ball. "I've got to tell the ref, replace this ball. So that's on me," he said.

He blamed himself for the interceptions, including two by Norman, who leads the NFL with four.

"It's not like I got baited into something. I threw it straight to him," Winston said. "Bad decision."