It always seems to be the story of Bucs beating Bucs.
It was the story when newly-hired head coach Bruce Arians coined the term at his introductory press conference, although the act itself has seemed to plague Tampa Bay since their inception in 1976.
It was the story when quarterback Jameis Winston threw back-breaking pick-sixes in losing efforts against San Francisco and Atlanta. It was the story when Tampa Bay’s defense allowed 22 second-half points against the Giants. It was nearly the story when back-to-back timeouts put Carolina within a half-yard of the goal line in Week 2. But part of the story throughout the entire season was the cumulative self-sabotage all season long when looking at Tampa Bay’s penalty numbers.
In total flags drawn, the Bucs landed themselves tied for the most penalized team in the league alongside Jacksonville with 158, while Tampa Bay also finished fourth in the league with 1,111 yards surrendered via penalties.
To put that number in perspective, 1,111 yards allowed via penalties would account for nearly 22 percent of Winston’s league-leading 5,109 passing yards in 2019 and Bucs’ running backs have only reached 1,111 rushing yards in a single season on two occasions since 2006. And these yards are all provided to Tampa Bay’s opponents free of charge.
Of the 10 most frequently penalized teams in the NFL last season, only three reached the playoffs. The Bucs’ divisional rival New Orleans Saints finished fifth in the league in total flags, the Kansas City Chiefs finished seventh and the Buffalo Bills finished 10th.
These teams have shown that while you can win with high penalty numbers, you’re often winning despite them as New Orleans and Kansas City boast two of the highest-scoring offenses in the league, while Buffalo allowed the second-fewest points per game in the NFL last season.
In Tampa Bay’s six most penalized games by net yardage, the Bucs finished 3-3 in those contests with five of them being decided by six points or fewer and two of them resulting in overtime losses. The team’s three victories came by three points over the Colts, 15 points over the Rams and three points in a come-from-behind win over the Cardinals.
Not one player can be singled out as the issue however, as the penalties occurred all across the Bucs’ roster. Cornerback Carlton Davis was the fifth-most penalized defensive player in the league with 12 total flags drawn, but just 9 of Davis’ penalties were accepted. Davis’ 111 yards surrendered via accepted penalties also put him at the seventh-highest such mark amongst all defensive players in the NFL.
Behind Davis you’ll find outside linebacker Shaq Barrett who drew 11 total penalties, offensive tackle Demar Dotson with 10 total penalties and Winston who drew six flags on his own. Jason Pierre-Paul and cornerback Jamel Dean also had five penalties each, depsite only playing significant snaps for just a portion of the Bucs’ season.
But hope isn’t lost for this young Tampa Bay squad as teams have generally had low penalty numbers and high win totals while under Arians’ leadership.
In 2012, when Arians took over as interim head coach in Indianapolis before leaving for Arizona in 2013, the Cardinals were the 17th most frequently penalized team in the NFL while his Colts team ranked 14th and finished 9-3 over his 12-game reign.
In 2013, Arizona dropped to 20th in the league and watched their record moved from 5-11 to 10-6.
In 2014, Arizona finished 18th en route to a 11-5 record and in 2015 the Cardinals were the third-least penalized team in the league, finishing the season at 13-3.
In 2016 and 2017 the penalties rose as the number of wins dipped, finishing with the 14th- and ninth-most total flags drawn across the league, respectively.
So as the Bucs head into 2020 there will be an “X” on their back and it won’t strictly be due to the acquisition of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the media fanfare that came with it. The Bucs, specifically their most highly-penalized players, will have to play each game knowing that a propensity for committing penalties lives in the mind of referees.
Penalties are free yards and arguably the most avoidable mistake a player or team can make. Now it will be up to them to eliminate those mistakes if the Bucs truly want to live up to their expectations of a deep playoff run.