Josh McCown’s rough debut showcases more backup than starter material

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown (12) is sacked by Carolina Panthers defensive end Wes Horton (96) during the first quarter.

Andrew Weber/Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — His disappointment still fresh, Josh McCown stood in a small room at Raymond James Stadium and pursed his lips before he spoke.

Frustration from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterback was evident before he spent about 10 minutes delivering an autopsy on his team’s 20-14 loss to the Carolina Panthers. After all the Bucs’ offseason change, after the new coach and new uniforms and new personalities invited to offer a different perspective for a franchise in need of rebirth, the same sour result — another defeat on another Sunday afternoon — had arrived on the field feet away. McCown felt most responsible.

"The turnovers, the things that happened, that’s what we can’t do," he said, looking down at the podium, his left hand itching his left ear. "We can’t turn the ball over. And I own those things."

This was far from what should have been expected from McCown when he made his first regular-season start for the Bucs. This was far from what the most optimistic of pewter-and-red followers should have hoped when they knew this group under coach Lovie Smith would be built on strong defensive play with visions of a good-enough offense. This was far from what most reasonable observers should have anticipated when Derek Anderson — not Cam Newton, a familiar tormentor — was named the Panthers’ starter shortly before kickoff and outplayed the Bucs’ answer behind center.

"I’ll own this one," McCown said.

He should. Though he led the Bucs on a 14-point fourth-quarter rally to trim the Panthers’ lead to three points, McCown was disappointing in his Tampa Bay debut, particularly in tossing two interceptions that made him look more like a rookie than a 12-year veteran.

The Bucs’ late rush makes McCown’s numbers appear better than they stood most of this sloppy afternoon. He closed 22-of-35 passing for 183 yards, though he never developed a rhythm until leading Tampa Bay on scoring drives of 62 and 61 yards in the final 10 minutes.

McCown’s play should be a concern. The greatest selling point of his signing last March was that the veteran was a coach on the field, a measured-and-disciplined presence who could become Smith’s second set of eyes in the huddle.

Smith was so confident in McCown that he named the journeyman his starter shortly after the ink had dried from McCown’s signature on the dotted line, this marriage between familiar partners in Chicago seemingly key to Tampa Bay’s success in a new era.

Buccaneers vs. Panthers

But there was McCown through three quarters Sunday, completing just 9 of 16 passes for 76 yards with interceptions in the first and third quarters. He looked every bit the backup-caliber talent he had been for so many years. The frustration didn’t sit well.

"It’s going to get better," he said with a firm tone. "It has to get better, period. So we have to be better."

Thing is, McCown was better late. He looked comfortable and in command as the Bucs almost flipped a 17-0 laugher into a near comeback victory to remember, before their optimism was dashed when running back Bobby Rainey fumbled on a short reception after linebacker Luke Kuechly jarred the ball loose at Tampa Bay’s 29-yard line with 1:27 left. The Bucs’ rally was too little and too late. They didn’t play well enough most of the day to win.

"Sometimes, you just have to take a negative play and not make a bad decision and give the ball up," Smith said. "Those plays hurt us. So Josh, along with the rest of the team, didn’t do what we needed to do early. At the end of the game, though, I like what Josh was able to do. We started moving it."

Inside the Bucs’ locker room, the mood was subdued, a predictable emotion after the day’s disappointment. Still, faith wasn’t lost in McCown, someone they expect to lead them where they want to go.

It’s unknown, though, if McCown has it in him to be a low-risk, high-reward presence at quarterback for a team trying to find its way under Smith. McCown is no longer an anonymous backup behind Jay Cutler. His stakes have changed.

He’s a front-and-center face here, someone who will help shape the Bucs’ early reputation under Smith. The pressure influenced McCown, and he threw one more interception Sunday than he totaled in 224 pass attempts with the Chicago Bears last year.

"He had some down moments," Bucs running back Doug Martin said. "But his high moments are what you should look for and what the Buccaneers should look for going throughout the season. It’s going to be fine."

"He has great leadership," Bucs wide receiver Chris Owusu said. "The way we ended up going into that fourth quarter, the way we ended the fourth quarter, that’s how we want to play. So we have a lot to build on, and we were encouraged by the fourth quarter. But we’re trying to get the W."

Cheerleader Gallery

McCown wasn’t interested in moral victories either, and the emotion showed as he closed his postgame thoughts. He spoke about entire fall as being "a journey" to discover who the Bucs will become, but it was clear the early returns annoyed him.

There will be more Sundays to recover from this stumble. But if similar showings from him follow, the concern will too.

"I made a couple bad decisions that hurt us and hurt our team and put us in bad situations," McCown said. "But it doesn’t stop where we’re going."

Soon after, he disappeared into a nearby corridor, toward the darkness outside with a confusing day done. He slung a small brown bag over his right shoulder and ran his left hand through his blond hair.

McCown arrived in Tampa as a question. He left Raymond James Stadium after his first start here remaining one.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.