New kid, old news
The Tampa Bay Bucs sure know how to break in a quarterback. They break his back with poor pass protection. They break his heart with dropped passes. As the losses mount, they eventually may break his spirit. Craig Erickson felt all of that but still managed to provide some hope for the hapless Bucs with his first pro start Sunday against the New York Giants. "I think a good start is a win, and we didn't win the football game," Erickson said. "I'm not satisfied. That's my nature. But we're a competitive football team and we'll get better."

Hate to break it to Erickson, but Tampa Bay's 23-7 loss to the Giants at the Meadowlands offered few signs that nature will allow the Bucs to mature as quickly as their young quarterback. Making his first start since the 1991 Cotton Bowl, Erickson completed 16 of 28 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown. But he hardly was the answer to all the Bucs' problems.

Giants tailback Rodney Hampton rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown, and the Bucs' defense made life a rocking chair for another Senior Tour quarterback, allowing 37-year-old Phil Simms to pass for 204 yards and a touchdown. And yet, and yet Bucs coach Sam Wyche saw the silver lining. "I'm proud of the way they played," Wyche said. "It wasn't the football team that played the Kansas City Chiefs, but the scores were very similar. Anybody who watched the game saw us take the next step."

If there was cause for pause, it's that the Giants needed a goal-line stand in the third quarter to prevent the Bucs from making a game of it. Trailing 20-7, Erickson completed five passes to drive the Bucs 79 yards and within inches of the end zone. But on fourth down, tailback Reggie Cobb did not break the plane of the goal line and the eyelash call killed the Bucs. "Had we done that, at 20-14, it would've been a fun quarter for everybody," Wyche said.

Actually, the game would not have been reduced to that one play if, two downs earlier, Erickson had not launched his pass over the head of wide-open Courtney Hawkins in the end zone. "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I'll make that throw, and it's one I wish I had back today," Erickson said. "That was a big turning point in the game and it's my job to make the throws."

Erickson came out hot, going 9-of-11 for 90 yards and a touchdown in the first half. His only misses were a dropped third-down pass by Hawkins and one that he dumped before he was dumped by Lawrence Taylor. Two things doomed the Bucs for the second consecutive week: their defense gave up the home-run ball and Cobb got knocked down a lot as soon as he touched the ball. The Giants had 181 yards on the ground, but blown pass defenses gave the Giants their only touchdowns.

Safety Joe King had an apparent interception squeeze through the doughnut he made with his arms and Mike Sherrard caught the 43-yard pass at the Tampa Bay 3. And linebacker Reggie Burnette blew his coverage of tight end Howard Cross, who stood alone on an 18-yard touchdown pass. "You can't give up the cheap touchdowns," Bucs defensive coordinator Floyd Peters said. "We gave up two the game before and two in this game."

King spoke in whispers when he described the whiff. "There was no doubt about it, I knew I had it. I just didn't make the play," he said. Not going through anyone's arms was Cobb, who entered the game averaging 1.6 yards. The Giants held him to 32 yards on 16 carries. "As an offense, we felt the running game was going to carry us," Cobb said. "In the preseason, we ran the ball well, and all of sudden we've taken a step back."

New York controlled the ball for 11 more minutes than the Bucs - although it might not have mattered. The Bucs have only one play of more than 20 yards this season. Compounding problems is that the Bucs have had to use one and sometimes two players to help left tackle Scott Dill in pass protection. Dill played admirably in the season opener, holding the Chiefs' Derrick Thomas to no tackles. Against Taylor, Dill did not yield a sack. But the extra attention given Taylor left Keith Hamilton one-on-one inside and he responded by sacking Erickson three times. "If you do this to any defensive lineman, he's going to get his sacks," Hamilton said.

But Erickson did not seem rattled by the pressure. His lone interception came long after the game had been decided. "It wasn't a whole big change from my perspective," Erickson said of his pro debut. "You're anxious to get out there whether it's your first (start) or your 105th."

The worry with the Bucs is that it may take that long for Erickson to walk away with better results. SOS Ten points in two games is enough of an indication that an offense is struggling, but since we can't resist the urge to overanalyze, here are some other downers

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1993