Erickson provides whisper of hope
The Soviet Union is no more. Strange bedfellows from the Middle East are flocking to Washington to plant a most unlikely olive branch. But even in a world of radical change, the Tampa Bay Bucs remain an unconquering constant. Will their rise ever come? After Sunday's loss against the New York Giants, the Bucs are 0-2 for the season, 38-107 for a dead decade and 77-188-1 for their infamous life. Sam Wyche, trying to learn from Lot's wife, is vowing not to look back at torturous Bucs history. "Our team will always wallow in mediocrity," the Tampa Bay coach said, "if we dwell on the past."

Mediocrity? Bucs fans will take it. But, from the Giants Stadium rubble, there came a whisper of Tampa Bay hope. Craig Erickson, in his first NFL start, was a quarterback with passing accuracy that generally was imposing, decision-making that was predominantly efficient and battlefield leadership that gives the Bucs a chance - at least a chance - to ascend to mediocrity and beyond. Wyche, a high-energy soul who works at being socially conscious as well as athletically motivating, walked into Sunday's losing locker room with his arm wrapped warmly around perspective.

Christopher Wilson, a black man from New York who was soaked with gas and set afire by two racist pigs in Hillsborough County on New Year's Day, watched the Bucs-Giants game from Tampa Bay's sideline as a guest of the coach. "I visited Mr. Wilson in the hospital months ago," Wyche said, "to apologize for what happened in our Tampa Bay community. Christopher is a New Yorker, so I invited him to this game. With Mr. Wilson standing there, I told our team that life isn't always fair, something he obviously knows far better than we."

Wilson, who works on Wall Street, gave quiet but powerful testimony last week in a West Palm Beach courtroom, leading to conviction of his attackers. "It did provide great perspective when we might've been feeling sorry for ourselves," Bucs cornerback Milton Mack said. "Christopher didn't say much. He's not too vocal, but what courage we saw during his trial. We told Mr. Wilson how sorry we were for what happened in our state. We asked where he gets such incredible strength."

Wyche would emotionally segue from his Wilson theme to a football sermon, claiming the Bucs also had experienced one of life's shortchangings, reaping only a 23-7 scar from an afternoon of team effort that far exceeded Tampa Bay's output in last week's 27-3 embarrassment against Kansas City. "We're going through a time of trying to accelerate the growing process," said Wyche at an evangelical gait. "We did not get the bloom today. It was a Bucs team that kept fighting back. But we still haven't realized the fruits."

Blooms? Fruits? Huh? Tampa Bay did have one demonstrative opportunity. A chance to make Sunday a little more fun on the west coast of Florida. The Giants led 20-7 in the third quarter. Rodney Hampton was running like Walter Payton for the New York side, while his counterpart in the pumpkin-colored Bucco britches - Reggie Cobb - kept bumping into walls like a man lost in a hall of mirrors. But then, on bull's-eye throws by Erickson, the NFL's longest-running underdog began to notably gnaw. Craig was 4-for-4 on the Bucs' only TD drive of the season. Later, Tampa Bay came whistling to within 36 inches of the New York goal. A touchdown would deliver 20-14 competitiveness.

But I'm sure you know. Maybe it's just Buc luck, or Buc fate. But suddenly, with Courtney Hawkins so open in the end zone he was getting lonely, Erickson let fly with a pitch so wild it almost bounced onto the New Jersey Turnpike. "That's a 99-out-of-100 throw for me," the new Tampa Bay quarterback said, "but it happened at the most rotten of times. When I spotted Courtney and fired, it just slipped loose."

Figures. Even so, the Bucs had one last chance. Fourth down at the New York 1. Erickson audibled to a play called "Booger Right." He would explain, "We're supposed to knock the snot out of them as Reggie runs right." Instead, the Bucs got a bloody nose. Cobb saw daylight, but linebacker Michael Brooks would make a heroic undercutting tackle. Half a foot from hope.

Wyche is right. No bloom. No fruit. But, with Erickson, there's a new limb of hope. At the shattering moment of Cobb's shortfall, the QB had impressive 15-for-20 passing statistics. That, despite being encumbered with a Tampa Bay running game (i.e. Cobb) that was averaging 1.9 yards, and couldn't gain 1.0 when the Bucs needed it most. Paul Gruber is still at home, holding out and laughing at franchise failures. Charles McRae, another offensive tackle, was all but officially stamped Sunday as the latest fruitless No. 1 draft pick by Hugh Culverhouse's organization. Despite a huge need in the offensive line, McRae was deactivated and watched in street clothes. Will it ever subside?

In 120 minutes of the fresh NFL season, the Bucs have run the football for one first down. Tampa Bay's offensive numbers on third down - plus a few fourth downs like falling shy at the Giants' goal - are 3-for-24. Next week the Bucs don't play. I see them as two-point favorites over "Open." After that comes Chicago. Wyche said he's focused forward, while promising the bad stuff won't keep happening.

Christopher Wilson hopes so. Tampa Bay hopes so.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1993