TAMPA — Long before the carnage of the Bucs' 48-3 shellacking at San Francisco unfolded on Sunday, there came a moment that probably seemed insignificant, but was far from it.
The Bucs won the opening coin toss, received the ball and began their first possession. They faced third and 2 from their 28-yard line. Quarterback Josh Freeman hit receiver Preston Parker for a 6-yard gain, a first down. It seemed like a promising start given the many three-and-outs the Bucs have endured early in games.
In the end, though, it was nothing but a big letdown.
A flag was thrown just after the snap. Receiver Mike Williams was guilty of illegal motion, a 5-yard penalty. The Bucs failed to convert the resulting third-and-7 play and punted.
It's a scenario that keeps playing out with alarming frequency. The Bucs are the second-worst offenders in the NFL when it comes to penalties (44) and penalty yardage (360). The league average is 31 penalties for 261 yards.
And Tampa Bay's timing stinks. Too often, penalties have negated first downs, touchdowns or key defensive stops. In those scenarios, the Bucs are left wondering what might have been if they'd only been more disciplined.
"I hate to point back to any one instance, but the penalty at the start of the game last week, you never know if we had converted that first down, had we not jumped offside, what the situation would have been," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "(There's) momentum and all those things, having to not play from behind, all that. It just changes the game entirely."
Olson is not suggesting the lack of an early 5-yard penalty would have been the difference in a 45-point loss, but his comment reflects a frustration with the rate at which the Bucs have faced such situations.
There have been far too many avoidable penalties: false starts, illegal shifts and illegal motion and defensive offside.
Actually, they should rarely happen at all.
"If you're having mental penalties, you definitely need to focus more," left tackle Donald Penn said. "We all know that. With the mental stuff, there should be a minimum of mental penalties. It should just be physical stuff. But we've been just hurting ourselves. We understand that, and we're making it a priority to get better."
Getting to the heart of the issue isn't easy. Why is this happening? And what can be done?
Coach Raheem Morris has some thoughts. He points mostly to anxiety, with players such as Gerald McCoy and Brian Price — both coming off rookie-year injuries — among those who jumped offside. Other penalties might be the result of players pressing too much.
"On offense, (they're thinking) 'I have to make a big play. I have to get downfield," Morris said. "And then you leave early or line up wrong. The problem we're having as coaches is that it's happening early. And when it happens early, you really have no excuse. Those are the plays you talked about the night before that you knew you were going to run."
Veteran center Jeff Faine had a different theory.
"This could be about being a young team in the sense that maybe they think it's going to just come easy, like you can just coast through this," he said. "(They're thinking) 'I've done this before, blah, blah.' We're young, but there was more focus last year, with guys working hard to learn the plays and the offense and defense.
"Maybe they just relaxed a little bit and said, 'I got this.' Well, no, that's not the case. Things change. Defenses and offenses change. You have to adjust. I don't know if that's the case, but either way, it's a lack of focus."
The Bucs have had two touchdowns negated by penalties, both called against receiver Arrelious Benn. In other cases, opponents' scoring drives were kept alive by unnecessary infractions.
In a league where yardage is difficult to come by, it isn't exactly a recipe for success.
"It's definitely a problem," Faine said. "We've shot ourselves in the foot in games. We have to pay attention to details. And that was definitely harped upon this week."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.