Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 5 September 1994|
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers seem to always be a team that's better at hanging in than hanging on. This year, you can expect them to have drops in confidence, in attendance and especially in footballs that hit them in the hands. As the Chicago Bears discovered in the season opener at Soldier Field, it doesn't matter if you have no weapons and look completely punchless against the Bucs. Sooner or later, they'll beat themselves.
It happened again in Sunday's 21-9 loss to Chicago - a game that demonstrated both Tampa Bay's mastery and mystery on offense. The Bucs gained 304 yards - including 123 on the ground against one of the NFL's top rushing defenses - but failed to score a touchdown. They controlled the ball for a team-record 21 plays and 10:05 in one drive in the second quarter, but had to settle for the first of three field goals by Michael Husted.
They dropped four critical passes - including one by Willie Green in the end zone and another by Horace Copeland that would have given the Bucs first and goal at the Chicago 10.
"We can't tolerate mistakes like we did last year," Bucs center Tony Mayberry said. "Receivers have got to make those plays, the line can't get the penalties. The running game just can't be a fluke."
But if you're pointing fingers, aim one at the Bucs' defense. Tampa Bay held Chicago to just 66 yards rushing and did not allow a first down in the second half until early in the fourth quarter. But penalties and blown coverages accounted for all three Chicago touchdowns.
Cornerback Martin Mayhew was called for pass interference that resulted in a 37-yard penalty and set up the Bears' first score - a 10-yard pass from quarterback Erik Kramer to tight end Chris Gedney. Mayhew's counterpart, Charles Dimry, was burned on a 41-yard bomb from Kramer to Curtis Conway that set up the second TD.
And linebacker Lonnie Marts blew coverage on Gedney to provide Chicago with a game-clinching 37-yard touchdown pass with 5:35 left in the fourth quarter.
Mayhew, who was paid more than $2-million last season as a free agent from Washington, was pulled from the lineup in the second half and replaced by Mike McGruder.
Mayhew had words with defensive coordinator Floyd Peters after the game.
"Floyd decided he didn't want to start me, and for me it was very embarrassing," Mayhew said. "It was obviously something he thought was the right thing to do. We talked about it after the game and we didn't agree on it. He felt that was the direction he should go in and I felt the opposite. It's his decision, he's the coach and that's what he gets paid to do."
Why the Bucs' receivers are getting paid to catch footballs is another matter.
Green dropped a certain touchdown on the Bucs' marathon drive. Copeland butterfingered a long pass at the Chicago 10-yard line with Tampa Bay trailing 14-9.
Running back Vince Workman - who rushed for 81 yards on 15 carries (5.4 average) - dropped a third-down pass to kill a drive in the second quarter.
"All the people who dropped passes have very good hands and can make plays," Workman said. "I don't know how to explain it, but we've got to make plays like that to win games. We seem to always put ourselves in the same situation."
Not that Bucs quarterback Craig Erickson was flawless.
After completing 74 percent of his passes in preseason, Erickson started slowly against the Bears, going 1-of-7 for 2 yards until settling down late in the first half.
He finished the game 18-of-32 for 197 yards - but those totals could have been better if not for the drops and his overthrowing of Copeland, who was open to the end zone, on the 21-play drive.
"If there's any blame, it's on myself," Erickson said. "You hate to take it on your shoulders the first game of the year, but it's going to be different this year, so I don't mind doing that. We're going to win more than we lose."
The Bucs' frustrations could be summed up by their first scoring drive.
Running back Errict Rhett, who rushed 11 times for 49 yards Sunday, appeared to have given the Bucs a second and goal at the 1-yard line with his 7-yard burst.
But fullback Rudy Harris was called for an illegal block in the back - a call Bucs coach Sam Wyche angrily disputed.
The Bucs got a huge break when the Bears were called for holding - wiping off Husted's missed 34-yard field goal and giving them new life at the Chicago 11.
But on third down, Green dropped a pass in the corner of the end zone.
The Bears also managed to shut down tight end Jackie Harris - perhaps the Bucs' biggest weapon. Harris was held to three catches for 20 yards and was blanketed when Erickson looked for him near the goal line.
"They did a good job of taking Jackie Harris away," Erickson said. "I was looking at him a couple times, and it just didn't seem to fit. I know he's probably frustrated and I know the offense is frustrated knowing you've got a weapon like that and you can't get the ball to him."
In his post-game press conference, Wyche attempted to deflect criticism from his players and bristled when a reporter asked about Rudy Harris' penalty.
"Every one of them are mistakes the coach makes," Wyche said. "We've got to make sure we practice that guy going downfield longer and we didn't throw him enough passes under pressure so he's used to catching that ball. It's discouraging to see things open up. Basically, you've got the defense in the right position for the right call and a pretty pass. The players - believe me - it kills them to see something like that."
If there was a silver lining, it was the play of the offensive line and the Bucs' ability to run the ball against Chicago's defense.
"We're going to have a good running game. We're going to have a good football team. I think we're going to have a good season," Wyche said. "We got off to a start here that win-losswise is not going to be something we're happy about. This becomes a lesson for us. A tremendous one. I reminded them there's an awful lot of teams playing in January that didn't win the opener, and they usually look about like we did."