New year, old story
This was supposed to be a new beginning for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but on Sunday they seemed capable only of the same old endings. How else do you explain the Bucs offense that swept across the Meadowlands carpet against the New York Jets like a powerful vacuum, but when it got within scoring distance, kept kicking out the plug? What good was hiring extra hands like Dexter Manley to mount a pass rush, when Tampa Bay couldn't lay a finger on a ballcarrier any time the Jets went to the run? Even Bucs coach Richard Williamson let too many seconds click by in the fourth quarter before stopping the clock. Many think he is already playing with borrowed time.

The result for Tampa Bay was a 16-13 loss to the Jets before 61,204 in the season-opener at Giants Stadium. Last year, the Bucs finished the season at home by losing to the Jets 16-14. "I'm not so sure I saw a whole lot of good," Williamson said. "I saw some erratic play, which was not good."

If Sunday's performance against the Jets is what the Bucs can count on, they probably can be counted out with three games against playoff teams awaiting them in the next five weeks. The Bucs defense was hapless against the cutback running of New York tailback Blair Thomas, who enabled the Jets to keep the ball for all but 11 plays in the second half. The Bucs had just four snaps in the fourth quarter.

Vinny Testaverde looked brilliant tossing a 65-yard bomb to rookie Lawrence Dawsey for a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. But he was wild high on too many other throws, came up empty on three trips into scoring territory and threw a costly interception. Even reliable placekicker Steve Christie hooked a 37-yard field-goal attempt in the first half, breaking a string of 10 consecutive three-pointers in the preseason.

But the biggest comedy of errors came with the game tied 13-13. After the Jets drove 48 yards in nine plays to set up Pat Leahy's field-goal attempt, Williamson let more than 15 seconds run off the clock before calling a timeout. Leahy was perfect on a 40-yard kick to give the Jets a 16-13 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, tailback Reggie Cobb dropped the football, picked it up and lost it again. The fumble was recovered by the Jets' Dale Dawkins.

"That was mine," Williamson said of the botched timeout. "I was going to try and save it until we got the ball. And when we stopped them right there, I should've called timeout earlier. I didn't call it quick enough. But what I wanted to do was save it and use it somewhere in that minute and 30 or 40 seconds. All of a sudden, I decided to go ahead and call it and use it. Because they were going to let it run down and I didn't want to let it run down. I could've saved 15 or 16 seconds if I'd done it earlier."

As it turned out, that would have only prolonged the agony. The Bucs were not beaten by the Jets as much as they beat themselves. Despite rolling up 177 yards total offense in the first half, they managed just field goals of 29 and 38 yards by Christie. The Jets countered with an 80-yard touchdown drive that was capped by Freeman McNeil's 1-yard run. Leahy added a field goal of 26 yards to close the half, and the Bucs were fortunate to go to the locker room trailing just 10-6. "I don't know exactly why we bog down or didn't get it in the end zone," said Bucs tackle Rob Taylor. "That's the difference between winning and losing. Keeping them to 16 points isn't bad. We need to score more. What happened in the first half is what hurt us."

What happened in the second half was unbelievable. The Jets controlled the ball, the clock and the game by keeping the Bucs defense on the field for almost 24 of 30 minutes. In fact, the Jets kept the ball one time for 18 plays and 12 minutes - a marathon march which chewed up much of the second half but amazingly produced no points. On first and 10 from the Bucs 18, defensive end Keith McCants sacked Ken O'Brien for a 17-yard loss, and New York wound up punting. Manley, the Bucs' newly acquired defensive end, appeared in only six plays Sunday on passing situations and was not a factor.

Williamson was pleased that the Bucs managed to keep the Jets out of the end zone. "It tells you they have a lot of something to them to stay out there and not let them in the end zone," Williamson said. "Keith McCants made that big sack to keep them out. Tells you they have a little something in them to let them have it 20 snaps and not let them in. We've had a little problem with the run. I think one of the things we did today was have a lot of missed tackles. But that's a correctable thing. The problem is when you don't have a chance to miss tackles. You know, we had a chance to miss the tackles."

See, it wasn't a total loss. But Testaverde made the Bucs' defensive stand fall apart. On third-and-2, his pass to Gary Anderson was picked off by linebacker Joe Kelly. This time, Leahy made the Bucs pay for it with a 25-yard field goal to leave Tampa Bay trailing 13-6. "It was just some miscommunication between me and Gary," Testaverde said. "I thought he was going to come underneath, but he kind of settled down and ran his own route and I led him too much."

It was a particularly bitter defeat for Testaverde, who was playing before a hometown crowd of more than 60 family members and friends. "I was looking forward to the start of the season and coming back home, playing in front of a lot of family and friends," Testaverde said. "I was looking forward to that, and this was not the way I pictured it happening. It's going to be a tough one next week (against Chicago). It's no fun to lose games. But everybody's got their chin up. We just made some mistakes. We felt like we could've won this game and let it get away."

Rick Stroud The St.Petersburg Times 1991