Winston, Bucs get sloppy in 37-23 loss to Panthers
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 4 October 2015

Free agent kicker Connor Barth took to Twitter shortly after Buccaneers rookie Kyle Brindza missed the second of two field-goal tries Sunday, saying he’s available “for the right price.’’ But even on a day when Brindza left seven more points on the field, Barth might not have made much of a difference. That’s because rookie quarterback Jameis Winston played the biggest role, giving away 27 points on turnovers in a 37-23 loss to the Panthers.

“We’ve seen some signs that he can be a great player, but we’re just not there yet,’’ Lovie Smith said of Winston, who threw four interceptions and was involved in a fumbled snap from center. He’s making rookie mistakes. We’d like for him to be a vet right now. But he just finished playing his fourth NFL game. So, that’s a part of it. It’s just that, there are going to be some growing pains.’’

There were a bushel of them during a mostly rainy day at Raymond James Stadium, where for the second time in as many home games Winston’s first pass attempt resulted in an interception returned for a touchdown. But that wasn’t even the first of his mistakes.

As the rain poured down on him, Winston mishandled the second snap of the game, losing the ball to Carolina tackle Star Lotulelei at the Bucs 21-yard line. The Panthers quickly turned that into a 3-0 lead and, just five plays later, cornerback Josh Norman intercepted Winston’s pass and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown and 10-0 lead.

That’s how Winston’s day started. And if you consider the three subsequent interceptions, the two intentional grounding penalties he took and the two times he was sacked, it never got much better. Yet, Winston somehow walked away with his confidence still intact.

“I will never lose that,’’ a dour Winston said after the game. “Confidence will never be an issue. I just have to work harder. That was a wake-up call to my work ethic. I have to work harder.’’

It’s hard to imagine Winston working much harder. He’s been lauded for months now by teammates and coaches for his dedication to his craft. Still, he’s not connecting the right dots consistently enough.

Winston entered Sunday’s game with the league’s worst completion percentage (52.2), and while he bumped that up a notch to 54.9 by completing 26 of 43 throws for 287 yards and two touchdowns, he has thrown seven interceptions against six touchdowns.

Winston’s touchdowns on Sunday — 10 yards to Charles Sims and 6 yards to Vincent Jackson — were thrown during garbage time of a game decided shortly after the second half began. Of course, Brindza had something to do with that.

When Winston couldn’t drive the Bucs into the end zone at the end of the first half, Smith turned to the rookie kicker looking to redeem himself after missing three field goals and an extra point during a 19-9 loss last week at Houston. Redemption didn’t come in this opportunity, though. Or the next.

Brindza ended the first half by clanging a 29-yard try off the right upright, then missed wide left on a 43-yard attempt early in the second half. Either kick could have cut Carolina’s lead to 17-13.

On the play after Brindza’s second-half miss, the Panthers scored a bizzare touchdown when tight end Ed Dickson recovered a fumble and ran 57 yards for a touchdown and 24-10 lead. Tampa Bay’s next possession ended with Winston’s third interception, and Carolina turned that into another touchdown and a 31-10 lead midway through the third quarter.

“The letdown was the turnovers,’’ said Winston, who denied the Bucs were deflated by Brindza’s two misses. “There are so many parts to the game, but you can’t win a football game when you have five turnovers. And it’s not like I got baited into something. I just threw it right to them. When you throw it straight to them, they’re going to catch it. I just have to make better decisions.’’

And not just on his throws. Though center Joe Hawley was officially credited with the fumble that came on the Bucs’ second snap of the game, Winston took a share of the responsibility as well. “I should have (asked the referee) to replace the ball,’’ Winston said, “cause after that first play, it rained even harder. That’s my job, again. I’ve got to (ask) the ref to replace the ball. So, that’s on me.”

Smith didn’t disagree. Though he said fault lies everywhere — offense, defense and special teams — for Tampa Bay’s fifth straight loss to Carolina and 11th straight loss at home, he said this game came down to turnover margin. And on this day, Winston was mostly responsible for Tampa Bay’s minus-4 rating.

“This happens with young quarterbacks,” Smith said. “They don’t play the way you want them to, the way they should, the way they are capable of playing. But, in time, he will. We have to work through this.”