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Panthers-Buccaneers Turning Point, Week 8: Ugly starts lead to bad endings

By Thomas Bassinger
Jameis Winston fumbles during the second quarter Sunday. The Bucs have committed 12 turnovers after the first quarter this season, tied for the third most. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]

TAMPA ó The Bucs are a mess.

Where to start?

How about the beginning?

On Tampa Bayís first play Sunday, Doug Martin barely carried the ball beyond the line of scrimmage.

On the second, Jameis Winstonís pass to DeSean Jackson along the right sideline fell incomplete.

On the third, Winston targeted Jackson again, this time over the middle. The pass was high, but you wonder whether Jackson, sensing that he was about to get popped by a Panthers defender, didnít fully extend for the ball.

The Bucs had an opening on that third down. They just didnít execute.

So they punted. For the fourth time in their past five games, they ended their opening possession by kicking the ball to the other team.

If you had stopped watching there, you wouldnít have missed much. Hereís a recap: The Bucs scored three points. Only the Cardinals, Giants, Jaguars, Packers, Rams and Titans had worse offensive outputs. Thatís because they didnít play.

Then again, one could argue the Bucs didnít, either.

This was supposed to be an explosive offense, something resembling the 2016 Falcons. Instead, itís the football equivalent of a "Bang!" flag gun.

Those Falcons started fast. They scored nine first-possession touchdowns. They won eight of those games.

These Bucs have yet to score a touchdown on their first possession. Theyíre 2-5.

"Sometimes we are just not making the plays that are there to be made," coach Dirk Koetter said. "That happened in Buffalo last week. We ended up having to kick field goals on the first two drives. This last week we didnít get in position to even kick a field goal."

This isnít just a problem this season. Since Koetter took over the offense in 2015, Tampa Bay has scored three first-possession touchdowns. Thatís the fewest in the NFL.

Coaches, including Koetter, preach the importance of starting fast. And for good reason. Teams that score early win more often. Especially when they score touchdowns.

Since the start of the 2015 season, teams that have scored a touchdown on their first possession have won twice as often as theyíve lost. When theyíve kicked a field goal, the advantage hasnít been as great, but it has still been an advantage. When theyíve punted, more often than not theyíve gone on to lose.

Put another way: Teams that have ended their first possession with a punt have lost four times as many games as teams that have ended their first possession with a touchdown.

End eventRecordWin percentage
Touchdown183-890.672
Field goal105-900.538
Punt277-3560.438
Source: Pro Football Reference

Thatís not to say that games are over after a team punts on its opening drive. Itís a disadvantage, but so are most drives that donít end in points. Each one is a lost opportunity.

Itís worth noting that the Panthers also ended their first possession with a punt. They did, however, end the first quarter with a lead. And thatís harder to overcome than you might think.

Since the start of the 2015 season, teams that have led after the first quarter have gone on to win about three-quarters of their games. When trailing after the first quarter, the Bucs are 5-13 ó and 0-4 this season.

Itís easier to lead than it is to chase. When a team falls behind, it becomes less balanced and more predictable. And when that happens, it becomes prone to mistakes.

Tampa Bay has committed just one turnover in the first quarter this season.

But it has committed 12 turnovers after the first quarter, including three Sunday. Thatís tied for third most.

Thatís not a coincidence.

Why are the Bucs a mess? Theyíre playing from behind too often.

They wonít make the playoffs, but that doesnít mean the season is lost.

The next nine games are critical for Winston and the offenseís development.

But if the Bucs donít start jumping on opponents sooner, weíre going to look at this four-game losing streak and realize it was the beginning of the end of more than just a season.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.