It has been repeated so many times since last season, you were starting to believe. A lot of people have said quarterback Trent Dilfer is not good enough to take the Bucs to the next level.
After Sunday's 31-7 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the regular- season opener, one can only conclude they are partly right. Dilfer isn't good enough to do it all by himself.
The Bucs quarterback played one of the best games of his NFL career and lost, even if his performance won over a few detractors. It was a disappointing start to the '98 season for many reasons.
Dilfer hit all his receivers between the digits but his offense missed nearly every chance to put numbers on the scoreboard with an assortment of penalties, a fumble and short-yardage failures.
The defense was even more disappointing. The Bucs weren't close enough to quarterback Brad Johnson to even know what cologne he was wearing, and the defensive backs were like extras in a documentary about the splashy debut of receiver Randy Moss. Johnson threw four touchdowns - two apiece to Moss and Cris Carter - and helped the Vikings build a 21-0 halftime lead.
The loss was in stark contrast to the Bucs' chest-thumping win over San Francisco a year ago, the beginning of a 5-0 start. Now they head to Lambeau Field to play the defending NFC champion Packers aware of another record: Only one team - the 1993 Dallas Cowboys - has begun the season 0-2 and won the Super Bowl. "Somebody said it was an eye opener. But we were awake," Brad Culpepper said. "We were aware of how difficult it is. But I think it was a bit of a reality check. And it's like, okay, it is going to be tough - if not tougher - than it was last year. Because teams are gearing up for us. They know we're a good team. You've got to find a silver lining in this poor performance we had. You've got to regroup and realize how difficult it is to win in the National Football League. It's going to be harder this year."
It will be even more difficult without receiver Bert Emanuel, who caught seven passes for 98 yards before suffering a sprained left ankle in the third quarter. He is not expected to play against the Packers and could miss as many as three games. Not even Dilfer, who completed 11 straight passes to start the game, escaped unscathed. He sustained a deep thigh bruise and left with 5:14 to go in the third quarter after his 3-yard touchdown pass to Lorenzo Neal cut the deficit to 21-7. Although he has made 49 straight starts, Dilfer's status is day-to-day.
Dilfer finished 17-for-25 for 207 yards despite being victimized by three dropped passes. "Well, it wasn't good enough," Dilfer said. "When you're in that situation, you have to be perfect and I wasn't. I don't care about what my stats are or how many yards we accumulated. The bottom line is we're 0-1 and that's the only stat I look at. It's frustrating, but it only counts as one."
Mike Alstott returned to the site of his best NFL run, a career-defining 1-yard touchdown in which he dragged Vikings linebacker Jeff Brady and safety Robert Griffith into the end zone.
But on Sunday, the A-Train never got untracked.
Twice on third and 1 and once on third and 2, the Bucs deployed their Soul Train backfield of Neal and Alstott and failed to pick up the first down. They lost yardage each time.
The memories of Alstott's highlight reel touchdown burned in the Vikings' heads every time he entered the game. "We've been watching that film all last season, all this preseason, all up until now where he broke those tackles on our goal line and scored," defensive end Derrick Alexander said. "That's what got Tampa Bay's streak alive last year. And that's something that's been in the back of our mind ever since. He's a great football player. We have some great football players here and I think they showed it today."
After Alstott was nailed for a 2-yard loss on third and 2 in the second quarter, Michael Husted missed a 41-yard field goal wide right. The Bucs had a chance to cut into the Vikings' lead before halftime, but Alstott was pushed backward on third and 1 at the Minnesota 12-yard line. Then Emanuel dropped a slant pass on fourth down and the Bucs went into the locker room trailing 21-0.
Alstott also fumbled away a scoring chance in the first quarter. After a 4-yard reception from Dilfer, he was stripped by Alexander, and John Randle recovered to end the drive at the Minnesota 33.
"You've got to hang your hat on something. What we hang our hat on is to get big Mike in there in short yardage and let him pound some people," Dilfer said. "And we weren't able to do it today."
The defense, ranked third overall a year ago, also took the day off. The Vikings scored touchdowns on three straight possessions in the first half.
Moss, the heralded first-round pick from Marshall, didn't wait long to live up to the hype. He made a juggling catch of a 48-yarder from Johnson that cornerback Floyd Young momentarily deflected out of his hands. Then Moss beat Donnie Abraham on a 31-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.
The Bucs simply didn't know whom to double cover as Moss, Carter and Jake Reed lined up in the three-receiver formation for 31 of 53 plays.
Sandwiched around Moss' heroics were TD receptions of 1 and 18 yards by Carter. The Vikings' first score was set up by a questionable 40-yard pass interference penalty on Charles Mincy.
Meanwhile, the Bucs defense treated Johnson like a museum piece. The defensive line produced just four tackles.
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1998