Bucs go to pieces
The best call Steve DeBerg made Sunday was a quarterback sneak. He slipped into the Kansas City Chiefs locker room before Sunday's game and replaced Joe Montana's shoes with a pair of size 15s, leaving behind a note. "It was a little thing between Joe and I," DeBerg said. "Last year (at San Francisco), he stole my helmet and my shoulder pads, and this year I stole his shoes, put some big ones in there, and told him to stop following in my footsteps."

It was Montana who had chased him out of San Francisco and who now was preparing to make a historic comeback with a Chiefs team that DeBerg took to the playoffs two years ago. What happened in the Chiefs' 27-3 rout Sunday at Tampa Stadium provided a telling contrast between two players who keep watching the clock. Montana showed he is the greatest quarterback of our age, while DeBerg simply showed his age. Montana looked like the 49ers quarterback of old, and DeBerg looked like a quarterback who's an old 39er. Hail to the Chief.

Making his first start since being knocked out of the NFC Championship Game in January 1991, Montana completed 14 of 21 passes for 246 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. And just think what Montana might have done had he not left the game with 5:08 remaining in the third quarter, after sustaining a bruised right wrist. "He's just a great player, and he's at his very best in big games," DeBerg said. "And this was a big game for him."

This also was a big game for DeBerg, who also was removed in the second half but for all the wrong reasons. He completed 12 of 20 passes for 79 yards and was intercepted once. With Kansas City's defense daring the Bucs to go deep by employing eight- and nine-man fronts, DeBerg's longest completion was an 11-yarder to tight end Ron Hall. Consequently, the Bucs running game was nil. Tampa Bay averaged 1.3 yards per carry, and the offense went 0-for-10 on third-down conversions. The result was just 157 total yards, even though Tampa Bay controlled the ball as long as Kansas City.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs rolled up 400 yards. Montana proved he can still go deep, hitting J.J. Birden with a perfect 50-yard pass for a touchdown and floating a 49-yard completion to Jonathan Hayes that probably would have gone for six points had the big tight end not stumbled on the catch. Montana typically downplayed his first game out of a 49ers uniform, which came before 63,378 at Tampa Stadium and a national television audience. "I was probably a little less nervous (than the '92 comeback game)," Montana said. "I felt more comfortable because I'd played a few more games. It felt good to be back out there. It was a long time. I would've liked to have finished the game, but overall I was pretty satisfied."

Definitely not satisfied was coach Sam Wyche, who yanked DeBerg early in the second half with the Bucs trailing 17-3. He replaced him with Craig Erickson, the club's quarterback of the future, who did not fare much better by going 8-of-15 for 61 yards. Behind DeBerg, the Bucs produced a 35-yard field goal by rookie Michael Husted. Behind Erickson, they produced a missed 38-yard field goal by Husted. Wyche wouldn't discuss which quarterback will start next week's game against the New York Giants in the Meadowlands. "It wasn't Steve DeBerg having a bad day," Wyche said. "But we needed a spark, so we put Craig in there to see if he could spark us. I'm not sure that it did, frankly. We're not mad at Steve. Things didn't go well for the team."

True enough. While the offense struggled to score, the defense saw its own errors turn into Kansas City points. Tackle Santana Dotson sacked Montana once, but otherwise the Bucs got little pressure on him. The secondary strained under the responsibility. Cornerback Ricky Reynolds interfered with Birden for a 37-yard penalty, setting up the Chiefs' first touchdown - a 19-yard pass to Willie Davis. Reynolds also was beaten on the pass to Hayes after relaxing when nose tackle Mark Wheeler jumped offside, giving Montana a free play. Several players said they heard a whistle before the play. "Hardy Nickerson's never lied to me before, but he was the most adamant, telling me: `Sam, I'm telling you, the whistle blew,' " Wyche said. "I don't know. You should never let down. That's no excuse."

Cornerback Martin Mayhew, who appeared to be beaten on several long strikes to Birden but actually was supposed to have help from safety Joe King, said the Bucs challenged Montana and lost. According to Mayhew, there was never any question that Montana still could throw the ball deep. "His arm looked fine, but you can't sit back there and let him pick you to pieces underneath," Mayhew said. "They throw a lot of timing routes, so you have to be aggressive and challenge them. If I had to do it over again, I'd play it the same way."

Said Wyche: "That was a clean licking they gave us today. Joe had the hot hand that I remember him having. When he is on, the ball is put on the money, and he did it to us."

While DeBerg marveled at Montana's brilliance, he couldn't help but feel a little jealous, because the Chiefs used to be his football team. "He took care of business," DeBerg said. "He's got a nice supporting cast, too. I was hoping we would do better, but it's a nice start for him."

If only the shoe had been on the other foot.

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1993