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  1. Sports

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

Since coach Dirk Koetter took over the offense in 2015, Tampa Bay has scored three first-possession touchdowns. That's the fewest in the NFL.

TAMPA — The Bucs are a mess.

Where to start?

How about the beginning?

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

On the second, Jameis Winston's 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, didn't fully extend for the ball.

The Bucs had an opening on that third down. They just didn't 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 wouldn't have missed much. Here's a recap: The Bucs scored three points. Only the Cardinals, Giants, Jaguars, Packers, Rams and Titans had worse offensive outputs. That's because they didn't play.

Then again, one could argue the Bucs didn't, either.

This was supposed to be an explosive offense, something resembling the 2016 Falcons. Instead, it's 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. They're 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 didn't get in position to even kick a field goal."

This isn't just a problem this season. Since Koetter took over the offense in 2015, Tampa Bay has scored three first-possession touchdowns. That's 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 they've lost. When they've kicked a field goal, the advantage hasn't been as great, but it has still been an advantage. When they've punted, more often than not they've 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.

That's not to say that games are over after a team punts on its opening drive. It's a disadvantage, but so are most drives that don't end in points. Each one is a lost opportunity.

It's worth noting that the Panthers also ended their first possession with a punt. They did, however, end the first quarter with a lead. And that's 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 — and 0-4 this season.

It's 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. That's tied for third most.

That's not a coincidence.

Why are the Bucs a mess? They're playing from behind too often.

They won't make the playoffs, but that doesn't mean the season is lost.

The next nine games are critical for Winston and the offense's development.

But if the Bucs don't start jumping on opponents sooner, we're 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 tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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