New chapter, same verse
Michelle Kaufman The St.Petersburg Times, published 1988

Ray Perkins said last week that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that opened its season against Philadelphia Sunday would not resemble the team that lost four exhibition games. He was right. It was worse.

The Bucs lost 41-14 in front of 43,502 mostly-angry fans at Tampa Stadium. The crowd was the smallest ever to watch a Bucs season-opener at Tampa Stadium, and the outcome was the largest margin of defeat on opening day in Bucs history. Tampa Bay has now lost nine straight games dating back to 1987.

The scary thought is that it would have been even more lopsided had the Eagles' first team stayed in the game more than 30 minutes. Philadelphia's starters took a 34-0 lead into the locker room at halftime. “It was the greatest first half of football that I've ever been associated with, but it was the sorriest second half I've ever seen,” said Eagles coach Buddy Ryan.

All of Tampa Bay's points and all but 94 of its 362 total yards came against Philadelphia's mop-up crew. “That game was damned embarrassing in my opinion,” a red-faced Perkins said outside the Buccaneer locker room. “If it wasn't embarrassing to any of the guys in there, they need to get out of town.”

Defensive end Ron Holmes was just as upset: “I'm embarrassed. The team is embarrassed. This is pathetic. It's a miracle we didn't get blanked. I haven't been this embarrassed since we went up to New York and lost to the Jets (62-28 in 1985). And at least then, we could come home.”

The Bucs travel to Green Bay next Sunday. It should be a good one. The Packers lost their opener 34-7 to the Los Angeles Rams. Rookie running back Lars Tate, accustomed to winning at the University of Georgia, said he's angry at the Bucs' inability to move the ball. “I'm tired of hearing people ask when we're going to win,” he said. “We need to be more aggressive, you know, go out there with the winning edge. It's just not there yet. It's frustrating more than anything because I know we're a better team than we showed.”

Sunday's game indicated several things about the 1988 Buccaneers: Quarterback Vinny Testaverde is still learning. Despite connecting on 21 of 45 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns, he hurt the team by throwing five passes into Philadelphia hands. The Bucs' ground attack isn't ready to poke through a tough run defense. Five rushers combined for 43 yards on 15 carries.

Tampa Bay is in dire need of a punter. Ray Criswell, the only one they have, averaged just 32.8 yards on four punts and practically gave the Eagles their fourth touchdown by mishandling a snap and then losing the ball at the Bucs' 12.

Talented receivers have little trouble getting open against the Bucs' cornerbacks. Mike Quick and Cris Carter had six catches for 175 yards, an average of 29 yards per burn. uarterbacks need not worry about the Bucs' pass rush. It's non-existent. Randall Cunningham barely broke a sweat finding receivers on 7 of 12 passes for 156 yards. His 21 rushing yards came just as easily.

“I don't know what's wrong with us,” said receiver Bruce Hill, one of the only Bucs who played well Sunday with eight catches for 157 yards and a touchdown. “I know we have the talent to beat a good team, just not yet. We have to figure out what's going on. Even though I had a good game, I don't feel good inside. This is a team game, and when you lose, it takes away from your individual performance.”

Tampa Bay converted only 9 percent of its third downs into first downs (1 of 11), and let the Eagles control the ball for 36 minutes 28 seconds. The Eagles' seven first-half drives ended like this: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, interception, field goal, field goal, touchdown. The Bucs, meanwhile, gave the ball up this way: punt, punt, interception, interception, downs, downs, interception. "Yeah, we're young and inexperienced, but we should have never been behind like that,” said nose tackle Curt Jarvis. “There's no excuse for the way we played. We made more mistakes than we did during the preseason. They deserved to win big.”

Philadelphia scored on a 37-yard pass from Cunningham to Quick, a 2-yard Anthony Toney run, an 8-yard Cunningham to Keith Jackson pass, 23- and 26-yard Dean Dorsey field goals, a Cunningham 2-yard walk, and Terry Hoage's 38-yard run off a fake punt play. The Bucs avoided a shutout with third-quarter touchdown catches of 42 yards by Hill and 59 yards by Mark Carrier.

Everyone had explanations for the outcome of the game, but nobody took more blame than Testaverde. He said the fans' boos bothered him at times, but he understood their feelings. “I think the No. 1 problem was Tampa Bay's quarterback,” Testaverde said. “They (Eagles defenders) didn't do anything we weren't prepared for. They didn't blitz as much as we expected, and they really didn't trick us. I've just got to be smarter and more mature. I can't play like I'm in college anymore, because I'm not.”

Perkins said it was his fault that Testaverde's passes were off Sunday. “I've done a p----poor job with him, and we're going to correct it even if it means staying up until midnight,” the coach said. “I take the blame for the whole thing.”

Testaverde wouldn't hear of Perkins' opinion. “I don't think anybody should take the blame for the way I play,” he said. “I was well-prepared. Coach can't go out on the field and play with me. I have to do it on my own.”

Offensive lineman Mark Cooper said Testaverde is being too hard on himself. “I remember playing with John Elway in Denver his first year, and he threw six interceptions against Kansas City,” Cooper said. “People were booing him just like they're doing to Vinny. He bounced back. Vinny will, too. Some things take time to iron out.”

The Bucs' next task is to forget about the pitiful opener and move on. “All I can do is look forward to next week,” Testaverde said. “I expect more of myself than any fan out there, and I want to do something to get them on my side.”

And then, the winner of the Most Optimistic Buc Award, safety Mark Robinson: “Hey, it could have been a lot worse, like 100-0. Plus, we could have come out with a bunch of bad injuries. It's reality. Fourteen teams in the NFL will lose this weekend, and 14 will win. The key will be how we respond to this. I don't doubt that we have the heart to come back fighting.”