EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Lavonte David sat in front of his locker in full uniform.
Moments earlier, assistant coach Bryan Cox had placed his hand gently under the chin of the Bucs' second-year linebacker and lifted it up. Teammates took turns patting him on the shoulder pads, whispering in his ear and telling him they had his back.
David had played a monster game against the Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium with eight tackles (two for a loss), two passes defensed, a sack and an interception. But the hit he wasn't supposed to make — on quarterback Geno Smith that was ruled out of bounds — cost the Bucs in an 18-17 loss.
With New York trailing by two and with no timeouts and 15 seconds remaining in the game, Smith took off down the home sideline, and David shoved the rookie hard toward the bench at the Bucs 45.
The yellow flags flew.
"I was like, 'Holy cow! We've got a shot!' " Jets coach Rex Ryan said.
One play after the 15-yard penalty, Nick Folk split the uprights with a 48-yard field goal with two seconds left.
David's gaffe wasn't exactly the kind Bill Buckner, Chris Webber or Scott Norwood could relate to.
It was one of 13 penalties — for 102 yards — by the Bucs, including nine during the first 19 minutes. Safety Mark Barron's helmet-to-helmet hit on an 8-yard catch by receiver Jeremy Kerley on third and 21 helped lead to a touchdown. Cornerback Leonard Johnson's hold on Smith's 1-yard scramble on third and 6 helped lead to a field goal that made it 15-14.
But considering Rian Lindell's 37-yard field goal gave the Bucs a 17-15 lead with 34 seconds left, David's mistake was illuminated like Times Square.
The thing is David didn't believe he did anything wrong.
"To me, he was inbounds," he said. "I was definitely surprised about it. I was definitely surprised."
The Bucs rallied to David's defense.
"That's just him playing football," said safety Dashon Goldson, who was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit on a second-quarter incompletion. "We're not going to put the game on him either. That's not his problem. We did that the whole game."
Said coach Greg Schiano: "That's a tough one because earlier in the game, the quarterback hurt us with a couple of scrambles. So I'm sure in Lavonte's mind, he's thinking, 'I've got to get him before he gets into field-goal range.' "
The loss came to a team analysts predicted would be among the worst in the NFL and was starting a rookie at quarterback. The Bucs sacked Smith five times, intercepted him once and forced a fumble.
But Tampa Bay's offense was the same hot mess it was during the preseason. Quarterback Josh Freeman (15-of-31, 210 yards) engineered only two extended scoring drives. (The Bucs' second touchdown came one play after Smith's fumble at the Jets 5.)
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Yes, Freeman connected on a 37-yard pass to Vincent Jackson, on which linebacker DeMario Davis' tackle saved a touchdown, to get Lindell within range of the field goal that should have won the game.
But Freeman threw an interception that led to New York's only touchdown, was sacked three times and kicked the ball out of the end zone for a safety after Jeremy Zuttah snapped it too soon.
The Bucs were in such disarray, their first possession of the regular season ended with a timeout, delay-of-game penalty, second delay-of-game penalty, sack, false-start penalty (making it third and 35) and illegal-formation penalty that was declined.
Also, Freeman's helmet transmitter went out.
"The beginning of the game I don't think we handled very well," Schiano said. "With the noise and for whatever reason, I don't know if we were too amped up, but we didn't efficiently operate.
"The big thing, offensively, it's frustrating to everyone because we have good players. We will find a rhythm to this offense. We certainly haven't found it yet, but we will."
The Bucs also didn't get Doug Martin untracked. He rushed 24 times for 65 yards, 17 on one play during the late go-ahead drive.
Chaos and frustration seemed to boil over on the sideline when television cameras caught Jackson and tackle Donald Penn in a heated conversation.
Yet it's David penalty that will be replayed over and over.
"There's a lot of different things that made us lose that game," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "It wasn't that one penalty."
Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud @tampabay.com and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.