After he slowly stripped down to his tattered white sleeveless undershirt, Buccaneers left tackle Donald Penn sat down in front of his locker at LP Field late Sunday afternoon and quickly stripped Tampa Bay's season down to two simple words.
"Turnovers and penalties," Penn said flatly. "That's the story of our season."
They were certainly the story Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, who took advantage of two critical Bucs penalties and five turnovers to rally for a 23-17 victory that extended Tampa Bay's losing streak to five games.
"We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot," quarterback Josh Freeman said.
Freeman's fumble on a fourth-and-1 play from the Tennessee 25-yard line with 46 seconds left in the game proved to be the fatal bullet.
"It was just a mess," Freeman said of the final offensive play, which the Bucs believe was rushed unnecessarily.
After a third-and-10 play in which Freeman completed a 9-yard pass to Kregg Lumpkin, the Bucs were forced to hurry through the fourth-down play when their request for a measurement was denied.
"Even if it's not a first down, you should be able to see if (we need) inches, a foot or a yard," center Jeff Faine said. "But (the official) just said, 'Play, clock's running.' So, there was some concern there, but even then, we should be able to get the QB sneak. We should have handled that better."
Faine could have said that about several plays. In a game that started in a steady rain that never let up, the Bucs fumbled five times and lost it on four of those occasions. Tampa Bay also gave up a special teams touchdown, when Tommie Campbell took a reverse 84 yards on a kick return in the first quarter.
Despite those gaffes, the Bucs held a 17-13 lead and were in position to score early in the fourth quarter when their season-long problem with penalties crept up again.
After five plays, including three runs for 30 yards by LeGarrette Blount, took the Bucs from their own 20-yard line to the Titans 26, two penalties – holding against tight end Kellen Winslow and a false start against guard Jeremy Zuttah – left them in a first-and-25 hole from which they never recovered.
"We were driving, we were running the ball and running it well and really taking care of them up front, and a couple of costly penalties just really set us back again," Faine said.
"And that was one of those drives where we could have ended it right there. We just weren't able to finish the way we wanted to. It's just critical mistakes at critical times that keep killing us."
The holding penalty, especially, hurt the Bucs, Freeman said.
"That has to be avoided," Freeman said. "You're in field-goal range. If your guy beats you, LeGarrette is going to get back to the line of scrimmage – there is no need to tack on 10 yards. I would say it was a very inopportune time. That was a moment in the game where we really needed those points."
The Bucs allowed Titans back Chris Johnson to run for 190 yards on 23 carries, but no one blamed the defense for this loss.
That unit took the ball away from the Titans on four occasions, including an Aqib Talib interception returned 27 yards for a touchdown to give the Bucs a 17-10 lead early in the third quarter.
The defense also held strong after each of the Bucs' giveaways, allowing the Titans just two field goals on the five series that followed the four fumbles and one Freeman interception.
"The only reason we were even in the game is because our defense played lights out and created some turnovers and did some things to give us opportunities," Faine said. "We just didn't capitalize and execute."
They capitalized on one, scoring a touchdown on a 3-yard Freeman pass to Mike Williams to tie the game at 10-10 just before the end of the first half. More often, though, the Bucs squandered their scoring chances.
Tampa Bay has lost six of its past seven and has no chance to match last season's 10-6 record. At 4-7, the Bucs are 31/2 games behind NFC South division leader New Orleans, which plays tonight.
"The reason for that is simple," Penn said. "It's turnovers and penalties. It just keeps going back to the same two words. It's hard to win when you have a lot of turnovers and penalties.
"It hurts, and it's been hurting us all year."