The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got in one bye-week bonus practice on Wednesday before the players began their now NFL-mandated five consecutive days off. Head Coach Raheem Morris called it a "back-to-work" day, referring to the mental lift players often get from returning to the field after a hard-to-swallow defeat the previous Sunday.
However, even those Buc players who did want some time on the field to clear their minds and loosen their limbs probably got a little more than they bargained for on Wednesday morning. After all, nobody really looks forward to gassers.
For those who need a reminder on the term, a gasser is a sprint across a football field, from one sideline to the other. It is rarely used as a singular term, and it is almost always used as a form of punishment. That is, players occasionally find themselves running a series of gassers, with very short breaks in between each sprint, as a result of something that has displeased their coach.
What displeased Coach Morris on this otherwise tranquil morning was a penalty flag, or at least a symbolic one, necessary when one of his defensive linemen jumped offside. Since those little yellow menaces had been Morris' main focus during this abbreviated work week, seeing another mistake forced him to make a point in a way any football player would recognize.
Morris didn't mind sending his players into their lengthy break with that one specific reminder fresh on their minds.
"I love the bye, coming off the bye, getting those guys out there and running around," he said. "We got to lock in on some of the penalties. We had an offsides today and got to do some gassers. It was awesome. It's something we have to focus on as a team, and we'll do that."
Morris turned his team's attention to the issue of penalties with a special highlight cut-up tape he had made. With the video editing system that Buccaneer coaches have at their disposal, they can make an infinite variety of cut-up tapes, each one taking just a few minutes to put together and distribute to players. A coach could choose to look at all third-and-10 snaps, for instance, or to pump up his players with a reel of all their scoring plays.
Morris put together a tape that made an altogether different point. It was a mash-up of all 71 penalties that the Buccaneers have drawn in 2011. (The Bucs have officially been penalized 59 times through the first seven games, but Morris obviously included some flags that were thrown but declined by the other team.) The reason is clear: Tampa Bay is tied with Carolina as the second-most penalized team in the NFL this year, behind only the perennial leaders in that category, the Oakland Raiders. The Bucs have been penalized more than eight times per game (counting only accepted penalties); the league average is less than six per game.
So Morris decided to use some of his bye week time to look at every single one of them, and try to analyze why they are happening so frequently. He then showed that tape to his team, not all 71 plays but the ones he felt were most significant.
"We got a chance to sit down as a team and reflect on what's going on the first half of the season – not exactly the first half but the first part of our season before the bye," said Morris. "We got a chance to look at our 71 penalties all together as a team today, and be accountable for the ones that we can affect – the jumping offsides, the holding. Some of the judgment calls, the pass interference and some of those things, that we can't affect, we won't try to worry about them."
Morris estimated that 47 of those 71 calls were of the variety his players could control. He emphasized to his players how much damage they have caused, not only in 493 penalty yards but in the gained yardage that was subsequently lost, and in the promising drives that were killed.
One of Morris' main points harkened back to the sore subject that the Bucs have been battling all season – slow starts. Tampa Bay has found itself in catch-up mode frequently this season, and while they have finished strong enough to have four wins against three losses, they haven't always been able to come all the way back.
"We talk about holdings, false starts, whether it be offense or defense," said Morris. "We talk about procedural issues with wideouts, or tight ends moving at the same time, things of that nature. And then you really show the ones that took away plays from us, or some of the things that we've been talking about the whole time, and I know it's easy to say – fast starts. You can't have fast starts if you don't execute in the beginning, and you get yourself penalties to get backed up, get in second-and-10, second-and-20-type situations. That's not going to be conducive to fast starts."
Not surprisingly, guard Davin Joseph found himself talking about the fast-start issue following Wednesday's practice, when he was approached by the media. Joseph said the issue boiled down to making good gains on first down and converting on third down. The Buccaneers' offense has actually been pretty effective on third downs this season, ranking 13th in the NFL with a success rate of 39.6%. However, their success rate – like that of any team – begins to fall off sharply as the third downs get longer and longer. Tampa Bay is converting about 60% of third downs of 1-3 yards, but only about 30% when 7-10 yards are needed, and fewer than 25% if it's more than 10 yards.
Tampa Bay's third-down conversion rate is more than 10 percentage points higher in the second half this year, which is a measure of how much more efficient the offense has been overall later in the game than in the early going. And a big part of that has been penalties. Obviously, the Bucs have committed infractions on both sides of the ball, as well as on special teams, but the effects have been felt most strongly on an offense that has occasionally struggled to find its rhythm.
Thus, Morris' latest cut-up tape. He did it as a source of information and meditation for himself, and as an eye-opening reminder for his players. On the field Wednesday, that series of gassers emphasized how serious he considered the issue. It was a lasting reminder heading into the break, and Morris believes the team will come back a more disciplined and precise group in the second half of the season.
"We've got to eliminate and get that out of our system," he said. "Whatever it is, we tried to fix that today. We'll be able to reiterate and talk about it, send them home to go think about it, and then get back here and go to work next week."