ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers feel they're better than their record suggests, yet what they continue to prove during yet another disappointing season is they're nowhere close to being good enough to overcome critical mistakes.
A penalty for having too many men on the field cost the Bucs (2-10) an opportunity to attempt a potential game-winning field goal in a 14-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, and it's getting increasingly more difficult for coach Lovie Smith to explain the team's propensity for undermining themselves in key situations.
"We didn't handle the end of the game the way winning teams handle the end of games," Smith reiterated Monday. "During the course of the game, there were some things that happened. ... We didn't finish strong."
The Bucs have lost the past two weeks after leading at halftime. They've let fourth-quarter leads slip away in five other losses.
"Everyone has been different," Smith said, "but the result has been the same."
First-place Cincinnati overcame three interceptions, 10 penalties and an ill-advised onside kick that kept Tampa Bay in the game to extend its lead in the AFC North on Sunday.
The Bucs won the turnover battle — forcing three to the Bengals' one — but the last of 13 penalties crushed their hopes for an upset.
"It's tough. I'm at a loss for words. That's been killing us all year — penalties," cornerback Johnthan Banks said after the game. "We have to be more disciplined as a team. That's been our biggest problem. Today showed exactly why we need to be more disciplined. If we don't make penalties, we can win a game."
Reserve tackle O'Niel Cousins, who was being used as a tight end because Tampa Bay had three tight ends inactive because of injuries, was the extra man on the field. When he ran onto the field, fourth receiver Robert Herron was supposed to run off but didn't, which the Bucs attributed to a "miscommunication."
Josh McCown threw to Louis Murphy for a 21-yard gain to the Cincinnati 20 in the closing seconds, but the play was overturned when a replay challenge confirmed the Bucs had 12 men on the field.
"It's a sin, kind of simple as that. You can't do it," Smith said, adding that the team has numerous safeguards in place designed to prevent such penalties.
"They all fell through," Smith continued, "starting with me not seeing it."
Undisciplined play has dogged the team all season. Sunday marked fifth time the Bucs have been flagged for double-digit penalties, including three of the past four games.
They've been flagged nine times twice and tied with Seattle for being the most penalized team in the league.
"Normally I preach turnover ratio, and if you win that, you're going to win the football game. What I've found out this year is that that many penalties can offset anything you do with the turnovers," Smith said.
The coach, in his first season of trying to turn around a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 2007, remains confident he can fix the problems. Their next opportunity will be Sunday when they take on the Lions in Detroit.
"Growing pains, learning situations, normally it doesn't take this many games to get the point across," Smith said.
"I think you correct it the same way you do any mistake that's happened: you keep working on it, you keep bringing it to their attention. We start in the video session," the coach added. "You see it there, you keep preaching it throughout the week and just keep hammering it home. Eventually, it gets through."
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