The obvious thread that connects those overtime defeats at home, to the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 and Indianapolis, is special teams. The Panthers blocked two field goal attempts, blocked an extra point on the final play of regulation and returned a punt 52 yards to set up their winning field goal in overtime. In those final four minutes of the fourth quarter against the Colts, Tampa Bay gave up a 90-yard kickoff return and failed to recover an onside kick. Judging by the generally acceptable special teams play against the Redskins—one kickoff out-of-bounds by Martin Gramatica, one 20-yard punt by Tom Tupa—special teams are more easily remedied than another flaw that still bedevils the Bucs: penalties.
Those yellow flags are a red-flag item, the only truly disquieting thing about this championship team. The penalties speak to the profound issues of sloppiness and inattention to detail. Tampa Bay leads the NFL with an average of 105 penalty yards per game, an obscene number for a team that prides itself on poise and preparation. (By comparison, last season the Bucs had 49.3 penalty yards per game.) Gruden calls the infractions "a sore thumb." Certainly they stick out. Right tackle Kenyatta Walker's unnecessary-roughness foul before the two-minute warning and Sapp's subsequent roughing-the-passer penalty spectacularly undermined the Bucs against Indianapolis. In Washington a helmet-to-helmet hit on quarterback Patrick Ramsey by defensive end Greg Spires resuscitated the Redskins' only touchdown drive, and an offside penalty by Dwight Smith on a punt early in the third quarter moved the Redskins close enough to allow John Hall to kick a 51-yard field goal. "We gave them 10 points," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said.
Tampa Bay, which hasn't lost consecutive games since Gruden took over before the start of the 2002 season, could—probably should—be undefeated instead of 3-2 and two games behind the Panthers in the NFC South. As Rice noted, "We're right where we need to be. We're not where we want to be." Tea time is over. For the champions, the real party has just started.