Searching for signs of hope
Their faces hold no clues. If there is promise, it was hard to see it amid the pain.
There is a smudge across Brad Culpepper's cheek. Courtney Hawkins' left eye is red, watery. Sweat rolls down the forehead of Tony Mayberry. Trent Dilfer's lips are tight with pain.
But hope? Is there any hope here?
In times of trouble - and even by Bucs standards, this qualifies - the hardest thing to find is hope, and the easiest thing to lose is faith. And so you watch them limp across their dressing room, beaten up and beaten down, and you try to read their eyes. You see some disappointment, you see some denial, you see some disbelief. You see defeat.
But faith? Is there any faith left?
They have followed the horrible with horrendous. After a 21-6 dismantling by the Detroit Lions, the Bucs are the only NFL team without a touchdown this season. If you count preseason, they have gone 16 straight quarters without an offensive player visiting an end zone.
The most frightening thing is this. On a Sunday that was even worse than the Sunday before it, you could not help but think about next Sunday. And the one after that.
Will this offense be any better then?
Will it be any better ever?
There were no clues Sunday. Against a Lions defense that can be had, and that will be had by most other NFL offenses, the Bucs were their same misfiring selves. A field goal here. A field goal there. Nothing else.
Two things can happen here. One, the fans can lose faith. After all, they have seen this before. Two, the players can lose faith. We have seen that before, too.
This is the most dangerous point of the Bucs' current problems. There is an unproven coach, an unproven offensive coordinator, an unproven quarterback. Two games without a touchdown is an invitation to doubt. Do players now look at the game plan and wonder why they pass when they should run or run when they should pass? Do they look at the quarterback and shake their heads? Do they grouse and moan like fans are certain to today? Possibly.
"I'm sure some players are going to doubt me," Dilfer said. "And some may doubt what we're trying to do. But we can't splinter. We can't let what happened to us last year happen again."
What happened last year was that the locker room became a civil war, where players didn't believe in coaches who didn't believe in them. It made the season endless and the suffering eternal. Failure is like that. It makes doubts so easy, and it makes panic look like the proper course.
Is it the system? Probably not. Draw plays on third and 7 look ugly when they don't work, but look at the players on the field. What system is going to work? The wishbone? And what other quarterback would turn this offense into a great one? In one corner of the locker room, Mayberry looked at a crowd around Dilfer and wondered how tough the media would be on him. "In the past, we always had such " Mayberry looked for the right word, finally found it. "Such fracturing after something like this. The finger pointing would start, and the second-guessing. That's the biggest thing we have to guard against."
It is a difficult time to believe things are going to get better, however. Dilfer's rating still wears a quarterback's number - after two games, it's a cool 17.6, and the scary thought is that last season's four-touchdown, 18-interception total might have been a career year. Jerry Ellison has 16 carries for 22 yards. Alvin Harper has as many catches as Karl Williams.
The special teams blocked a punt, and the Bucs could not score. The defense forced a fumble at the Lions' 7, and the Bucs fumbled right back. Trent Dilfer overthrew Tracy Johnson, who ran like he was pulling a U-Haul. Dilfer overthrew Courtney Hawkins. The Lions played with the Lions' secondary. And still the Bucs could not score.
They say the right things, of course. They say they are confident they can light up a scoreboard. They trot out the losers' line about a lack of execution, saying the phrase as if it is an all-encompassing answer instead of a hollow and hopeless dodge. They say good times are to come.
But conviction? Is there any conviction there?
It would be nice to believe. But things may be getting worse. Those who think Dilfer deserves a public flogging got their way Sunday, and now Paul Gruber will be gone a month. Defenses will continue to creep into the line to challenge the running game until they get burned. And the malaise will continue.
You look into their faces. You see some hurt there, you see some humiliation, you see some heartache.
But hope? Is there any hope in there?
And does anyone have any to spare?
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1996