Lavonte David played an extremely good football game on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, as has become the norm for the second-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker. In the last 10 seconds of that game – long after he had put up eight tackles, a sack, an interception, two tackles for loss and two passes defensed – David found himself chasing New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith towards the right sideline.
The Jets were trying to get in range for a last-second game-winning field goal, and they did just that, thanks to Smith's 10-yard scramble and the yellow flag that came flying after David tagged Smith out around the sideline at the Buccaneers' 45-yard line. David was penalized for a late-hit personal foul on Smith, the ball was moved up to the 30 and, with seven seconds to play, Nick Folk booted the game-winning 48-yard field goal.
David's penalty was obviously a critical part of the outcome, and it came at a moment – as fellow Buc linebacker Mason Foster said – that the second-year man was just competing his heart out.
"Everybody's playing hard," said Foster. "Especially Lavonte, he plays hard every single down – practice, game, whatever. It is what it is. You're playing hard, you don't know if he's clearly out of bounds, you're just playing. You take it for what it's worth. It is what it is."
Almost every flag in an NFL game is going to leave one team happy and the other believing it was unfairly penalized. There were certainly more than a few such moments in the Buccaneers' 18-17 loss on Sunday. But the final stat line is hard to write off: 13 penalties for 102 yards committed by Tampa Bay, versus six for 45 yards by the Jets. That's something that the Buccaneers, who only drew 13 or more flags once in all of 2012 and were the NFL's 13th-least penalized team, know they have to keep from repeating.
"As a team, penalties [were the key]," said wide receiver Mike Williams. "We've got to get over the penalties. That's the first thing you look at before you look at any [other] mistakes is the penalties. I think we had 11 or 12 penalties. You can't go into a game and get 11 or 12 penalties and expect to win."
Many of them were costly. A weird run of delay-of-game and false-start penalties – perhaps caused by problems with QB Josh Freeman's helmet radio – derailed what appeared to be a promising first drive that could have set the game's tone. In the fourth quarter, the Jets drove for a field goal that put them up 15-14 with six minutes to play, and the drive appeared to be stalled before a down-the-field defensive holding call on CB Leonard Johnson. An unnecessary roughness flag on S Mark Barron kept alive the march that led to San Francisco's touchdown just before halftime.
The Jets may have eventually won the game without all of those penalty moments, but it's hard for the Buccaneers to forget – or, ultimately, to explain – all the flags they feel were critical to the outcome.
"I have no idea [how it happened]," said tackle Donald Penn. "It's hard to pin-point that – maybe first-game jitters, maybe a couple of them shouldn't have been called. But we've got to get better at that. Penalties hurt us; we lost the penalty battle and you're not going to win when you do that."
Added linebacker Dekoda Watson: "The Jets are a great team and they capitalized on a lot of the mistakes that we made. Penalties are not going to help us win any games, I don't care who we play. There are some things we have to work on as a team. We've got plenty of ball left, but at the same time we still don't want to go in the next game with the same mistakes. We've got to be prepared and ready to go."
Goldson, whose own 15-yard roughing penalty came in a play-hard moment, knows David's late-game penalty hurt the team but also knows that his young teammate is a very smart and productive NFL player.
"That's just one of those things," said Goldson. "He was trying to make a play and it cost us. Your emotions are in it. You're playing football, you're trying to win a football game. You can't think about hits…you're out there trying to win. I think we did a good job out there today, but we've got to play with a little more control, better understand the circumstances."
The Buccaneers obviously understand that they can't expect to win consistently with double-digit penalties, and given their results in 2012, that rash of flags isn't likely to be repeated.