When you're smack dab in the middle of lousy — the 4-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers definitely are — it doesn't take much to ruin your day. When you're not good, bad is always just a play or two away — or a penalty or two, as it were.
So it was for the Bucs in their 23-17 loss to Tennessee, their fifth consecutive defeat in their decidedly downward spiral.
We could point to the five Bucs turnovers, which can't be entirely excused by the rain. Or to the Bucs' defense, ranked 31st in the NFL, living down to expectations as Titans star Chris Johnson gathered momentum and finished with 190 yards. Or to that mess at the end, yet another Josh Freeman pick and that harried, hapless quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one, panic everywhere …
And why did the Bucs' coaches and Freeman spike the ball on first down with 1:14 left on the final futile drive? There was plenty of time left and this isn't an offense that needs to be giving away downs.
But when its story is written, it will definitely include, quite prominently, one particularly hapless Bozo sequence Sunday that instantly transferred momentum from Bucs to Titans. It was all about who the Bucs are: a team that can't control itself.
Tampa Bay was up 17-13 in the fourth quarter. The offense was finally stirring, having been moribund since the Bucs grabbed the lead on Aqib Talib's interception return for a touchdown.
LeGarrette Blount, who had 103 yards to go with his two fumbles, was making big gains on the wet sod — 16 yards, 14 yards, 7 yards. There were about 10 minutes left. The Bucs appeared to be in control. On first-and-10 from the Tennessee 34, Blount tore off another eight yards.
But the story of the season appeared: more mistakes. Always, there are more Bucs mistakes.
This time, it was Kellen Winslow for holding. It was a killer.
Winslow said, "You could really call holding on every play. Mine? I don't think so, dude. … He came inside of me, my hands were inside, and I let him go. It wasn't like I was holding on. A split second, you know?"
Instead of second-and-two at the Tennessee 26, it was first-and-20 from the Titans' 44.
Think that mattered?
The next play, Bucs offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah was flagged for a false start.
Now it was first-and-25 from the Tennessee 49.
Think that mattered?
Second down: a short, meaningless minus-2 yard pass from Freeman to Kregg Lumpkin. Third down: Lumpkin on a draw for 3 yards. Blount wasn't even involved. The Bucs punted, and the Titans went down the field and scored to go ahead 20-17.
"You never have complete control, but we certainly had a good grasp of what was going on," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "… It's unfortunate, too. We were doing a pretty nice job up to that point — and we get … critical penalties right there. Pretty much give them the ball back with an opportunity to take the lead."
Last season, the Bucs were bailed out by big fourth quarters, by Freeman magic. They've run out of fairy dust.
"Some of the things we'd get away with last year, we'd pull it out in the end, it's kind of a mentality, that we're going to kind of pull it out in the end," Zuttah said. "It's kind of working against us now. We should have cleaned this up a long time ago, and now the ball isn't bouncing in our favor."
This is the face of losing and more losing, of not being good enough, or disciplined enough.
Yes, the Bucs were moving in the right direction, with Blount pounding away.
"I thought we had it," Kellen Winslow said.
There's no walking between the rain drops this season.