Wake-up call looks just like nightmare
Suppose everything you thought you knew was wrong. Suppose everything you trusted was a lie. Black was white. Left was right. The sky was orange and rain came up from the center of the Earth. Suppose gravity didn't work and for every action, there was no reaction at all. Suppose everything you believed was on solid ground was an illusion floating on a cloud. This is what Sunday was like. You couldn't trust anything anymore.

It wasn't so much the Bucs were waxed 31-7 by the Minnesota Vikings. It was the manner in which the wax was applied. You see the score and you think, "Wow. Minnesota must have run two interceptions and a fumble back for touchdowns, then hit a big play late in the game." That would be easier to accept as an aberration.

But this? A game in which the Bucs defensive line turns invisible? A game when Mike Alstott looks like a big, slow back? A game when the conservative and poised Bucs are neither? A game when Minnesota's defense looks better than Tampa Bay's? A new day that looked a lot like yesterday?

The worst part about Sunday was not defeat, which happens with some frequency even to good teams. The worst part was the blank faces walking around the bench area in the late stages. Hardy Nickerson kept glowering at the scoreboard. Chidi Ahanotu kept shaking his head.

What happened? And for goodness' sake, is there reason to believe it will not happen again against the Packers, against the Lions, against a lot of other explosive teams on the schedule?

This was supposed to be the greatest season; instead, it has begun with the greatest disappointment. This was not the Bucs as advertised in magazines and on television as a Super Bowl contender (or a Peach Bowl contender, for that matter). It's like hearing about how great a movie is going to be, over and over, and it turns out to be Ishtar. The powerful running game barely outgained Mark McGwire. Bert Emanuel dropped a key pass. Short yardage was a Rubik's cube. Mike Husted missed a field goal. Alstott lost a ball, and the team lost its composure.

On a team where defense leads the way, however, defense has to lead the list of disappointments, too. In a league of big plays, the Bucs didn't make any. Minnesota stopped itself with a penalty on its first drive, then scored on three straight. Where was the vaunted defensive line? Warren Sapp had only an assist. Ahanotu and Regan Upshaw, the defensive ends, were shut out. For all anyone knew, Keith McCants could have been out there.

Where was the secondary? Brad Johson carved it up with four touchdown passes. The Vikings' rookie receiver looked so fast, you'd swear it was the Rolling Stones who were trying to gather in Moss. Where, most of all, were the plays? Where was the big sack? The stuffed run on short yardage? The interception? Where were the game- turning big plays this defense made so often a year ago? Every time the ball hung in the air, it was the Vikings who made the play, the Bucs who did not.

It was the kind of defeat that begs questions. Is this a team that has fallen in love with its own image? Has the hype taken away the hunger? The Bucs say no, that this was nothing more than a disappointing defeat to a quality opponent. But can you doubt that Minnesota was the more intense team? Can you deny that when it came to the dirty work - blocking and tackling - the Vikes were better?

"We're going to look at the game film (today) and be sick," SS John Lynch said. "We had the ball in the red zone and we couldn't get it in. Defensively, we played okay until it got to the big play, and then it always went their way."

There were 14 losing teams in the NFL Sunday, and they have this in common. All are asking for perspective. All are pointing out there are 15 games to go. All are talking about two or three plays that made the difference. And all remain full of hope. This one, too. "It's only one game," Brad Culpepper said. "Look at San Francicso last year. They lost to us, and they lost their quarterback and star receiver, and they did pretty well. They won their next 11 games or something. Maybe this will be good for us. Maybe it'll show us where we need to get better. No one in here thinks we are world-beaters, but it's going to be harder for us this year. Maybe we'll look back when all of this is done and it will be good for us that we lost this game."

Maybe. No one can deny the talent, or the possibilities, of this team. But if Sunday is an example - and so far, it is the only one we have - there is something that has to be regained, that spark that separates good teams from ordinary ones on downs that matter. If you are going to believe in this team still, that is where you have to start.

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1998