TAMPA — It's a common malady that strikes young running backs without warning, a condition that can result in an embarrassing loss of prized possessions and, ultimately, employment.
LeGarrette Blount, the Bucs' 6-foot, 248-pound tailback, cleared his throat in the locker room at EverBank Stadium on Sunday in Jacksonville and tried to explain how he coughed up two balls (losing one) during a 41-14 loss to the Jaguars.
Blount leads the team with 737 yards and five touchdowns on 167 carries. A majority of his yards — 383 entering last week's game, according to STATS Inc. — have come after initial contact by a defensive player.
How powerful is Blount? A lot of players say they'll run through a brick wall to win. Blount could actually do it.
But since coming to the NFL last season, no running back has fumbled more. He has put the football on the ground nine times (losing six), including four fumbles over the past three games that resulted in three turnovers.
"I notice it every time we play," said Blount, who has fumbled five times and lost three this season.
"Defenses are going to go for the ball more on guys who fumble it a lot. I don't want to get that label."
Complicating matters is Blount, like former Bucs fullback Mike Alstott, has the power and athleticism to run through a pile of defenders and emerge on the other side. In that crush of flesh, it's as easy to lose the football as your wallet to a pickpocket working New Year's Eve on Bourbon Street.
"You've got to have a mental focus for the understanding that as a bigger back, the defensive backs and safeties don't come up and pop you," Blount said. "They let the other guys stand you up and the DBs come to strip the ball."
If there is a singular reason why the Bucs have gone from 10-6 in 2010 to 4-9 this season, including seven straight losses, it is turnovers. Tampa Bay is tied with Philadelphia for the most giveaways in the league with 31. Josh Freeman has 18 interceptions. Receivers and kick returners also have contributed.
But nothing is more deflating for a player than to carry the hopes of a franchise in your arms and have it ripped away.
"There was a situation early in my career when I was fumbling," said Alstott, a six-time Pro Bowl selection in his playing days who fumbled 32 times (losing 25) over his 11 seasons. "It's the worst feeling in the world to be a running back and have to come to the sideline and face the head coach knowing you've put your team in a bad situation.
"There was a game against Kansas City we won (17-10 in 1999), and I put the ball on the ground three times that game. But the coaching staff did come back to me. The best thing is for a coach to give you the ball on the next play, if possible, after you fumble. It says they still believe in you."
The Bucs still believe in Blount. Cornerback Ronde Barber said he approached the former Oregon star on the sideline Sunday to tell him how his twin brother, former Giants running back Tiki Barber, struggled with ball security until he did something about it and salvaged his career.
Tiki Barber fumbled 35 times (losing 17) between 2000 and 2003, prompting Giants coach Tom Coughlin to threaten him with a loss of playing time. So during the offseason after the 2003 season, Barber changed his running style. He became a running back who carried the ball high and tight, even running on a treadmill with a football tucked safely under his arm.
"It has to become something that matters the most to you," Ronde Barber said.
Blount didn't make it to the NFL by fumbling footballs. But there is an adjustment once players get to the league.
"One of the things you find out with running backs when they come into the National Football League is they've never been hit like this before," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "The guys that play in the NFL are big and strong and explosive guys.
"You can preach ball security. You can make sure the runners and receivers are holding it the right way. But it's a big transition a player has to make in the NFL, how they're going to get struck with the ball and handle that. They learn early on how secure they have to hold that thing and give it the proper attention it deserves."
That's why this week, the Bucs devoted two extra periods to ball security.
Blount grabbed a football that was attached to a black elastic band tethered to the goal post and strained to reach a set of cones while being struck by blocking pads.
"Same drills we always do," Blount said, "just more of it."
The good news for Blount is there is a cure for fumble-itis. Unless it spreads to your head.
"It's already loaded into a lot of people's heads," Blount said, "so I'm going to have to try to erase that memory for a lot of people, including myself."