In the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rousing victory over the Carolina Panthers last Thursday night, the visiting team first took the lead on a Chris Godwin 20-yard touchdown catch late in the first half, and then again for good in the third quarter on Peyton Barber's 16-yard scoring run. The two drives were similar in distance and time – the first was five plays and 72 yards in 2:27, the second seven plays and 75 yards in 3:31 – but they also had one other important thing in common.
In official NFL game summaries, penalties are inserted into the play-by-play text in italics, making them stand out from all the lines of text. These two drives stood out because they had no italics. The Buccaneers didn't draw an offensive penalty on either possessions. That's good, and unfortunately it's also been a little rarer than would be optimal. The Buccaneers have drawn 20 accepted penalties so far, tied for second-most in the league, and 10 of those have been on offense. All of them have been on Buccaneer drives that failed to produce points.
That first-half touchdown drive in Carolina, which started with Mike Evans' 41-yard catch down the sideline and ended on a beautiful double-post by O.J. Howard and Godwin, was actually just the second possession out of six in which the Bucs did not commit an offensive penalty. On the first one, they capitalized with a field goal. This did not escape the notice of Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich, who was asked if that Godwin touchdown drive was when the Bucs finally got into a rhythm moving the ball.
"It was really the first series that we didn’t have a penalty, when you sit there and look at it," said Leftwich. "That’s part of growth. That’s part of understanding situational football and how you win football games. You try to not have as many pre-snap penalties as we had. We were in some tough situations there early, but that was our first series where we didn’t get a penalty, and that just shows what we can do if we put ourselves in good situations.
Not counting a kneel down at the end of the first half in Week One and a kneel down at the end of the game in Week Two, the Buccaneers have had 22 offensive possessions so far. Six of those drives have produced points for the offense, and there was a seventh that would have done so had Matt Gay not pushed a 42-yard field goal just right of the upright in Carolina.
That leaves 15 other possessions that didn't end as well, and penalties take a big part of the blame for the majority of them. Three of those drives ended with interceptions on either the first or second play, before there was much time for a penalty miscue. Three others that did not include a penalty ended on punts or downs. That means a full nine of the Bucs' non-scoring drives through two games has been marred by – and perhaps completely hamstrung by – a penalty.
After turning the ball over four times in the season-opening loss to San Francisco – a stat most would agree was the reason the Bucs lost – they went the entire evening in Carolina without coughing it up. And that may be the number-one reason the Bucs won. There's little doubt that turnovers are the most destructive thing to an offense, and it was good to see the Bucs clean that issue up in Week Two. The next order of business is to cut down on the penalties, which are not nearly as dramatic as turnovers but can quietly be almost as destructive.
Leftwich made sure his players recognized the stark conflict between drives with and without penalties.
"I think the guys learned from that, they see it, we’re addressing it, so it’s something that we as a team can all get better from just by being in these situations," said Leftwich. "[It was] great film for us to sit and talk and teach through that film."