Rush to judgement
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 20 September 1999

The defense dominates again, and with a Trent Dilfer-led offense adding just enough, the Bucs dump the Eagles 19-5. The Bucs' beleaguered offense finally moved the chains Sunday. They're just not ready to remove the handcuffs from Trent Dilfer.

The quarterback finished the game tying a career-low with 14 passing attempts - including just four in the second half - while having a good seat to watch his running attack and defense demolish the Philadelphia Eagles 19-5 at Veterans Stadium. Dilfer threw touchdowns to Bert Emanuel and Mike Alstott, but he also was intercepted twice and mishandled an early shotgun snap from center Tony Mayberry that resulted in a safety.

It was hardly a redeeming performance for Dilfer. On the other hand, the only thing worse would have been to quarterback the Eagles. Tampa Bay's swarming defense recorded nine sacks - the second-most in team history - including a single-game team-record 3 1/2 by Warren Sapp. Meanwhile, running back Warrick Dunn and Alstott combined to rush for 146 yards.

The victory left the Bucs tied with most of the rest of the NFC Central at 1-1, one game behind the surprising 2-0 Detroit Lions, heading into Sunday's game against winless defending Super Bowl champion Denver. But it did little to erase doubts about Dilfer, who got the W but didn't win over many detractors.

"I've got to get better. I've got to play better for us to win the big games," said Dilfer. "And I'll do that. But today, our defense played great, we ran the ball and we did what we had to do. I think the thing I'm frustrated with is that we were in a groove in preseason. And yes, it's preseason and I'm veteran enough to realize it doesn't mean that much. But we created some good momentum. And then, last week was obviously a debacle and was disappointing. And then this week, we just don't have that rhythm right now. We need to be able to do everything to beat the really good teams."

That list does not include the Eagles under first-year coach Andy Reid. The Bucs defense held Philadelphia to 150 total yards while extending its streak of regular-season games without giving up a touchdown to three. But it had plenty of help. Just consider how the Eagles ended the first half. Trailing 13-5 and driving with no timeouts after Dilfer's first interception, Philadelphia scrambled to line up for a 26-yard field goal with 19 seconds remaining in the half.

But place-kicker Norm Johnson, an 18-year NFL veteran, , was late running onto the field and, in nearly a full sprint, pushed his attempt wide left as time expired. "There's no excuse for a kicker in a hurry-up situation not being on the football field," Reid said. "That's absolutely ridiculous and that's a lack of concentration and organization on our part. Again, I'll take responsibility for that. That should never happen."

Reid replaced injured and ineffective starting quarterback Doug Pederson (bruised shoulder) in the second half with rookie Donovan McNabb, but the second overall pick in the draft only produced 37 yards of total offense and was sacked six times. Sapp wasn't the only Bucs defensive lineman with a multiple-sack game. Defensive ends Chidi Ahanotu and Marcus Jones had two apiece and nose tackle Brad Culpepper was credited with 1 1/2.

As a team, the Bucs fell one short of the team record of 10, set in a 29-26 victory against the Baltimore Colts in the second game of 1979. "Coach Dungy stressed all year that we can't lose two in a row," Mayberry said. "Fortunately, our defense was ridiculous the way they played. And we just knew if we ran the ball, and kept them off the field, when they hit the field, they'd wreak havoc."

Dilfer, who finished 7-of-14 passing for 89 yards, looked good directing a 10-play, 66-yard drive for a TD after the Bucs received the opening kickoff. Emanuel capped it by turning a hitch pattern into a 19-yard TD. Rookie Martin Gramatica kicked two second quarter field goals, including a 51-yarder, before Alstott went 17 yards for another score on a screen pass in the third quarter as the Bucs took a 19-5 lead.

But the bad outweighed the good. Mayberry took the blame for the bad snap that Dilfer wisely knocked out of the end zone, saying he hiked it too soon and should have gone to a silent count because of crowd noise. Dilfer forced a ball deep to rookie Yo Murphy that was intercepted by Troy Vincent. Dilfer claimed Vincent later interfered Jacquez Green, causing the second interception by safety Brian Dawkins.

After that turnover, it was clear Dilfer's passing day was over. His 14 attempts tied a career low in games he completed. "We felt that was the way we had to play," Dungy said. "I haven't been pleased with our running game the whole preseason. We hadn't run as well as we should. That was our emphasis as well. I was aware it could be an ugly game. Jake Plummer was ugly for 2 1/2 quarters against that team. Minnesota looked ugly against them in preseason. They have a defense that forces you into that style."

The strategy was successful against a bottom-rung team such as Philadelphia. But Dilfer knows his arm will have to look stronger if it is going to carry the Bucs very far this season. "The other stuff, I don't think you can build off it because there wasn't enough rhythm to feel like you were accomplishing anything in the passing game," Dilfer said. "It was more just managing the football team. And today I took that role in the second quarter. "I said, 'My job is to just manage this team and wear down the clock and wear them out.' I did a good job with that, I just didn't do a good job throwing the football."