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Tampa Bay is a team attempting to build on a solid 2005 regular season record of 11-5, which earned it the NFC South division title and a trip to the playoffs last season.

However, the Buccaneers also are a team attempting to break some bad habits, particularly their penchant for committing penalties.

In 2005, the Bucs were penalized a franchise-high 131 times for 1,081 yards in 16 regular season games. That averaged out to eight penalties and 67.5 penalty yards per contest.

To put those numbers in perspective, only seven teams were penalized more than Tampa Bay in 2005, and the Bucs were actually the highest-penalized team to make it to the playoffs last season.

Bucs head coach Jon Gruden knows this year’s team will be hard pressed to accomplish that same feat if it even comes close to setting another franchise record with penalties next season.

“Somebody has to be the highest-penalized team to qualify [for the playoffs], but that doesn’t mean we’re accepting penalties,” Gruden said.

Penalties weren’t just an issue for the Bucs in 2005. In fact, they’ve been a consistent problem throughout Gruden’s tenure in Tampa Bay.

The Bucs have been penalized a total of 468 times for 3,890 yards over the past four seasons.

Those certainly weren’t the penalty numbers Bucs fans had grown accustomed to before Gruden’s arrival in 2002.

Former Bucs head coach Tony Dungy’s teams were quite disciplined. In Dungy’s six seasons in Tampa Bay, his Bucs teams were penalized fewer than 80 times in three of those years, and his teams were never once penalized over 100 times in a single season. The Dungy-led Bucs averaged just 84 penalties per year.

With Gruden, keeping the number of penalties down has been a real challenge. His Bucs have failed to finish a regular season with less than 100 penalties in a single season, and his teams are averaging 121 penalties for 1,033 penalty yards per year, which is an average of 37 more penalties than what Dungy’s teams averaged during his tenure.

There’s a direct link between disciplined teams and winning teams. Now, that’s not to say teams that commit a plethora of penalties will not win. The Bucs proved this last year by being the eighth-highest penalized team in football, yet still making the playoffs. But this certainly was the exception and not the norm.

In 2005, eight teams finished the regular season with less than 100 penalties, and five of them made the playoffs. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that two of those five playoff teams – Seattle and Pittsburgh – were participants in Super Bowl XL.

History has proven that mental mistakes don’t typically translate into a winning formula, and Gruden realizes this. That’s why the Bucs have hired referees to monitor all of their organized team activities and training camp practices over the past few seasons, including this year.

“We have to show more discipline, and we’ve got to coach,” said Gruden. “We’ve had [the officials] out here for every OTA – they’ve been here all spring. We’ve been trying to make this an emphasis with the players. We’ve got to eliminate penalties, and it helps to eliminate penalties if you’re calling them on a daily basis. I’m counting on this paying off. Hopefully it does.”

At first glance, one could make the mistake of assuming that a large number of penalties were called on Tampa Bay’s young players since the Bucs had a bunch of them in the lineup last year. But Gruden disagreed with that notion, and cited the fact that the entire team was guilty of committing penalties, including the head coach himself.

“A lot of our penalties weren’t called on young players,” said Gruden. “We had some key veteran players commit penalties. I had a [personal foul – unsportsmanlike conduct] penalty against Green Bay for crying out loud. Penalties are against the team. I mean, they might single you out, but they’re against our team, and they’re hurting our team. We have to eliminate the penalties.”

Gruden also pointed out the fact that although Tampa Bay was penalized 131 times last year, there were several calls by the officials that shouldn’t have been made.

“The officials are going to call it like they see it,” said Gruden. “But sometimes the penalties being called aren’t really penalties. There are several of them that aren’t, and they’ll tell you that themselves. Sometimes it’s just a bad call. I don’t cry sour grapes, but I think it’s fair to say that everybody has to do a better job.”

History suggests that a better job in this department could mean a lot more success for the Bucs, who are hoping to compete for a Super Bowl this year.

The highest amount of penalties committed by a Dungy-led Bucs team came in 1998 when the team was flagged for 99 infractions. That just happened to be the only season in Dungy’s six with Tampa Bay that the Bucs failed to make the playoffs.

The fewest amount of penalties one of Dungy’s Buc teams committed was 75 back in 1999, which was the same season the Bucs won the then-NFC Central division title and made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

Under Gruden, the Bucs’ fewest amount of penalties came in his first season in Tampa Bay, which was 2002. That year, the Bucs were penalized just 103 times for 789 yards. Of course, that was the same year the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII.

While the Dungy-Gruden comparison was used to give some perspective, it’s not quite realistic to expect the 2006 Bucs to only commit just over 70 penalties per season.

Not only are penalties up with the Bucs under Gruden, they’re up throughout the entire National Football League. Last year, the Carolina Panthers were the least penalized team in the league, but they still had 91 infractions.

It’s probably not realistic to ask the Bucs to finish the 2006 season with under 80 penalties, but it’s also not too much to expect the team to steer in the opposite direction of setting any more franchise records in the penalty-breaking department, either.

The realistic goal for the Bucs seems to be finding a middle ground. Attempting to stay just under or around 100 penalties per year seems to be ideal for teams like the Bucs, who are hoping to return to the playoffs and compete for the Lombardi Trophy in 2006.

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