Uh-oh & two
It was their unfortunate lot to play seven straight games away from home and fly more than 15,000 miles to start the season. The Bucs finally are done hitting the road. But needless to say, the road hit back. It's no longer the lure of a new stadium that has made this team so homesick. At 0-2, the Bucs appear to be going down the drain without much of a gurgle.
Thanks to the matador blocking of future Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White, Green Bay sacked Trent Dilfer six times - three by White - and forced three fumbles from the Bucs quarterback to give the Packers a 23-15 win over Tampa Bay Sunday at Lambeau Field. It was the sixth straight loss to Green Bay (2-0) by the Bucs, who thought they had narrowed the distance between themselves and the defending NFC Central champion. But now that gap seems as wide as the Gulf of Mexico.
"I'm really disappointed, not just because we're 0-2, but because of the way we've been playing," Tony Dungy said. "It looks like in the off-season, the teams in our division improved more than we have. Now we have to get better during the season. I think we've got a good football team and our guys have some character. We had a streak like this last year, but it came at midseason. Now it's the beginning."
You may not recognize the Bucs team that will host Chicago on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
If anything, the Bucs more closely resemble the '96 team that started 0-5 than the '97 version that began 5-0 and ended the franchise's 15-year playoff drought.
If you recall, the Bucs played solid defense and kept games close while the offense barely scratched out one touchdown per game.
On Sunday, the defense certainly made a better account of itself than in the 31-7 opening loss at Minnesota.
Tampa Bay sacked Brett Favre four times, twice by defensive tackle Warren Sapp. It also held the Packers to 1.5 yards per carry.
But the offense did the Heimlich on itself, coughing up the football at the worst possible times.
After Dilfer's first fumble, the Packers had to travel only 14 yards for their first touchdown; they went 52 yards for their second. "It's a long season, fortunately," Bucs defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "We weren't on our game as a team last week. Defense stepped it up this week. The offense has got to come on now."
Dungy seemed puzzled. For the second straight game, Tampa Bay's offense produced just one touchdown and the running backs were stuck on a treadmill, gaining just 46 yards on 18 carries (2.6 average). But even more alarming were the Bucs' four turnovers. As a credit to Tampa Bay's defense, the Packers produced just seven points off them.
"I don't know what it is," said Dungy, who watched the Packers win their 25th straight regular-season game at Lambeau. "We come up here and they all seem to follow the same pattern. We self-destruct, they come out with a lot of energy and build a lead against us, they kind of relax, we come back and fall short."
Dilfer, treated all week for a thigh bruise, left with 11:35 to go in the third quarter with a leg cramp. He received three bottles of intravenous fluids and returned in the fourth quarter.
He led the Bucs on a 10-play, 84-yard drive punctuated by his 2- yard touchdown pass to tight end Dave Moore. But it was too little, too late. Dilfer went 20-for-36 passing for 211 yards and a touchdown - only his second scoring toss in his past five games against the Packers.
The Bucs received a huge break when safety Mike Prior dropped a punt from Tommy Barnhardt, giving Tampa Bay a first down at the Packers' 17. But backup quarterback Steve Walsh, who went 2-for-4 for 0 yards, was intercepted by cornerback Tyrone Williams in the end zone. The Bucs also failed to cash in when Roell Preston fumbled a punt that was recovered by Jerry Ellison at the Green Bay 28. Five plays later, Dilfer was sacked and stripped of the ball by Keith McKenzie.
By the fourth quarter, the Bucs offense had been outscored 54-7 this season. Tampa Bay finally scored when rookie Jacquez Green returned a punt a club-record 95 yards for a touchdown.
It was a bittersweet debut for Green, who earlier made a poor decision to return a kickoff 5 yards into his end zone and was tackled at the 16. Green also lost a punt in the sun that the Packers killed at the Tampa Bay 3. "We made too many mistakes. They got the kickoff return and had a short field," Bucs tackle Brad Culpepper said. "It's 3-0 before you can blink your eye."
White, who announced his retirement in the spring but then decided to play another season, uprooted Bucs right tackles Jason Odom and Jerry Wunsch like weeds on his way to planting Dilfer.
In the first half alone, he had three sacks, three hurries, three knockdowns and forced a fumble. White has only sacked two other quarterbacks - Phil Simms (15.5) and Neil Lomax (13) - more than Dilfer (8).
Asked Sunday what he thought when he learned White would return for another season, Dilfer said: "Was I bummed? No, I love Reggie White. He's one of my heroes. It's great to see him playing football. Unfortunately, we have to play twice a year against him."
John Lynch said it's possible some of his teammates simply thought they would begin '98 the way they ended '97. "I think guys fall into that, assuming that it's going to be there," he said. "We should know, because we have enough guys that have been here, that it's tough to win games in the NFL. I think we'll learn that for sure after these two. I think sometimes you forget what got you there."
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1998