TAMPA, Fla. — The day after, no Tampa Bay Buccaneers defender worried about linebacker Lavonte David’s frame of mind. They had witnessed his reaction to one of the opening week’s most inexplicable penalties — “He was definitely upset, and you could see that on him,” linebacker Jonathan Casillas said – but there was no concern about how the second-year player would react to his next test.
No worry that what resulted from a light shove of New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith on the sideline in the closing seconds Sunday would carry into Week 2. No worry that the image of Nick Folk’s 48-yard field goal sailing through MetLife Stadium’s uprights would stay with him. No worry that this mistake, painful and prominent in the Jets’ 18-17 victory, would linger to stunt his potential.
If not for the shove, talk about David would have been much different Monday.
He would have been praised for his eight tackles (two for a loss), one sack and one interception. Bucs coach Greg Schiano calls him one of Tampa Bay’s “finest players,” and it’s easy to see why.
Inches and better discretion separated the Bucs from a 1-0 start and a less sour Sunday evening for David. There’s no way around it: This mistake was puzzling, even more so because the young player has such a strong reputation in Tampa Bay’s locker room.
But here was David, whom Bucs linebacker Dekoda Watson calls a “future Pro Bowler,” at the center of a gaffe that gifted the Jets an unlikely victory.
“I don’t know what to say,” David told reporters Sunday. “They called a flag. I guess I hit him out of bounds. Everybody told to me to keep my head up. All the guys in here were very supportive.”
The support continued Monday at One Buc Place, and given NFL life’s breakneck pace, that’s no surprise. The Bucs value David, as they should. They need him in top condition — both physically and emotionally — if they are going to recover from this loss to New York with matchups ahead against Drew Brees and Tom Brady.
By all signs, David has promising upside. He led the Bucs with 139 tackles last season, 34 more than the second-place finisher, linebacker Mason Foster. Just last Thursday, defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan praised David’s performance last season and spoke about pushing him to reach another level: Double-digit tackles consistently, tracking the ball in the passing game, swatting down throws.
“A lot of people want to sit here and point fingers and say, ‘Oh, he did this, he did that and he lost the game,’ ” Watson said. “Come on. He messed up one time. … Did anybody forget that he got an interception? Did anybody forget that he got a sack?”
Watson went on.
“But as a team, we’ve got to all play our part. People looking outside, people who don’t know football or want to point fingers and don’t know exactly what’s going on, it’s easy to do that.”
The reality is part of life for David and others, though. This was a team loss by the Bucs, plain and simple, but David’s play was a made-for-highlights blunder. Still, Tampa Bay committed a host of errors that contributed to the result: Josh Freeman’s lukewarm play, Doug Martin’s inability to break free, a bizarre safety in the first quarter when Freeman kicked a botched snap out of the back of the end zone.
The Bucs almost escaped MetLife Stadium undefeated despite it all. On offense, this was an overall sloppy effort, and it can’t be repeated if they hope to contend with the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. The defense, however, played well enough to win: Smith was sacked five times and intercepted once. David was a centerpiece of Tampa Bay’s resistance.
“He cares,” Schiano said. “The guy is a great player and a great teammate, and he cares. He feels like he made a mistake that cost the game. I told him, ‘It’s one play. We had plenty of opportunities to win that game.’ Am I pleased with the play? Is he pleased with the play? No, but he’s one of our finest players. We fully expect Lavonte to rebound. That’s the fighter he is. He will be fine.”
And who knows how many would have reacted differently if faced with the same scenario?
“I can’t really say he made a mistake, because I didn’t see it as a mistake,” said Bucs defensive tackle Akeem Spence, who thought the penalty was questionable. “But he looks fine. He looks like he’s ready for our next game next week. We’re all backing him hard. Nobody is saying anything negative about it, so that’s big. He’s a great player, so we can’t make one bad thing that he did reflect on the game he had.”
The one bad thing hurt David. He was upset leaving the field, but by Monday, teammates saw he had recovered in time.
“Who wouldn’t be in that situation with a play like that?” Casillas said. “As a man, you’re going to take responsibility for your actions. … He’s a young kid. He has a high, high ceiling. He’ll be able to correct his mistakes and move on.”
The process of moving on for David began Monday, the day after, the sting of his mistake present. There was nowhere else to go but ahead, past the memory of an odd end to an otherwise successful afternoon, with hope that next Sunday will be better.