EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — His Bucs teammates were changing into street clothes, quickly. They wanted to get out of this stadium, out of this city, out of this season opener.
Linebacker Lavonte David sat on a stool.
He sat in his uniform, everything but his helmet, still as could be, and stared at the carpet.
A few minutes earlier, David had trudged from the field at MetLife Stadium. The New York Jets had just kicked a field goal that gave them an 18-17 win with two seconds left. Just another Norman Rockwell homecoming for Greg Schiano.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had lost a game they thought they'd won — with a late drive and a field goal all their own — until David was penalized for a late hit on Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith.
It was a push more than a hit, but Smith was clearly out of bounds and David clearly knocked him down. Smith's teammates began celebrating. They knew how big a deal it was.
Big and bad.
It moved the Jets 15 yards closer, setting up Nick Folk's 48-yarder.
David drifted from the field after the kick.
Bucs pass-rush coach Bryan Cox stopped David.
There were tears in David's eyes. Cox spoke to David, who tried to look away, but Cox put a finger under David's chin and gently turned it so they made eye contact.
Cox's message for David was the same one David received from teammates:
“Just keep your head up, man,” David said. “One play don't make you.”
The second-year Buc has a wonderful career ahead of him. He's going to make a Pro Bowl, maybe more than one. But along the way come lessons. He learned his share as a rookie. But some are more brutal than others.
Sunday was one of those.
This kid had to know better.
His brain needed to kick in.
He gave away 15 yards. He gave away the game.
“They just called the flag. I don't know what to say,” David said. “I guess I hit him late, out of bounds.”
Not that David was alone Sunday. The Bucs were a comedy of errors. This season opener shouldn't have been close, much less lost.
The Bucs made mountains of mistakes, from the snapped ball kicker Josh Freeman booted out of the end zone for a safety, that cockamamie opening series — way to come out firing on all cylinders, guys! — or third-down penalties, or Freeman's awful pick that led to the only Jets touchdown, or penalized hits from safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron.
Greg Schiano and his million-man coaching staff had better remind these guys that there are 765 million reasons why this league is getting safety conscious — and they'll have to deal with it.
These guys have to understand the situation. Lavonte David didn't. Yes, rookie Smith had burned the Bucs on some scrambles, but David had to know the last thing, the last thing, to do at that moment was so much as touch Smith.
The Jets would have been down to a Hail Mary, nothing more.
The flag flew.
And the tears came.
David mostly played a great game — eight tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, two passes defended. And then ...
“I would have never hit him, but I thought he was going to stay in bounds,” David said.
David answered media questions after the game. He didn't hide.
“Hey, you've just got to learn from it and move on,” David said.
“Without him, we wouldn't have even been in a situation to win the game,” said Bucs linebacker Mason Foster, who had eight tackles and two sacks. “Everybody was making mistakes. That stuff happens all the time, only it happened at that time, so the spotlight is going to be on him.”
“It's unfortunate,” Freeman said. “I'm sure that's something that will get replayed between now and next week's game. That's the way it goes sometimes. I'm sure he's upset. I know he's going to learn from it.”