Bucs can't afford many duds like the one Jameis Winston just delivered

TAMPA, Fla. -- Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston stood deep within Raymond James Stadium after his worst performance as a professional, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers suddenly walking a tightrope with him.

He met reporters in a small interview room, wearing a gray suit, a matching tie and looking dazed. His answers after a four-interception performance in a 37-23 loss to the Carolina Panthers seemed too succinct at times.

"You have to take the heat and keep going," said Winston, who completed 26 of 43 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns. "You've got to move forward."

The Bucs (1-3) expected growing pains for Winston when they drafted him first overall in April. But if head coach Lovie Smith is going to prove he's making progress with this team, Tampa Bay can't afford many days like the one Winston had Sunday.

His interceptions and a botched snap with center Joe Hawley -- on the game's second offensive play -- led to 27 Panthers points.

"I think he's making some rookie mistakes," Smith said of Winston. "We would like for him to be a vet. We've seen signs that he can be a great player. But with that, though, we are not there yet."

This is the Bucs' delicate balance for the coming weeks: Show patience with Winston, who has thrown six touchdowns and seven interceptions this season, while presenting evidence the franchise is moving forward. That's no easy task.

Frankly, there's not much positive news. The first four games of this season look much like the first four from last year, when Tampa Bay also went 1-3 on its way to a dreadful 2-14 campaign.

The offense can't develop sustained momentum. The defense remains suspect. The special teams, headlined by kicker Kyle Brindza's problems, are a mess.

True, Winston is only one player, and he's an inexperienced one at that. He can't be expected to make Tampa Bay a consistent winner this early in his career. Perhaps he will be able to do so some year, but expectations for the 21-year-old must remain reasonable.

Consider that Andrew Luck threw three interceptions on three separate occasions as a rookie in 2012. Or that Cam Newton, who played opposite Winston on Sunday, threw three picks in two games and four interceptions in another as a first-year player in 2011. Development takes time.

Still, Winston must show he can consistently avoid the football equivalent of a face plant on a concrete sidewalk. That's what Sunday became for the former Heisman Trophy winner -- a painful experience worth forgetting. He must show he can manage a game, take care of the ball and avoid significant damage from defenses.

He failed in all three areas Sunday.

"It's surprising to myself, myself as [the] player who I believe that I am," Winston said of his interceptions Sunday. "But you bounce back. You don't think bad about yourself. You don't get down."

Whether Winston is able to rise from this will reveal much about him and his franchise. Smith should feel urgency, with last year's failures fresh, to show he's moving the Bucs in the right direction with Winston. The faster this happens, the better for the veteran coach's future. There's little time to waste.

"When you go through one quarter of a football season, yes, everything is fixable," Smith said. "We just finished up the first quarter of our season. ... We have a lot of football left to go, and we will improve in all areas.

"Right now, we're not there yet, but we'll eventually get there."

After Sunday, that destination seems far away, with a quick fix appearing elusive. The Bucs know molding Winston into the player they think he can be will take time.

Unfortunately for them, there aren't any precious seconds to lose.