The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were doomed in a dome, called on the carpet, frozen in the headlights at another stadium like most road kill. How it happened in Sunday's 26-20 defeat to the Minnesota Vikings wasn't much different from the Bucs' 14 other consecutive losses in away games, but there were a few new subplots. Vinny Testaverde went from having the hot hand to having no feeling in it at all. He was whacked delivering a ball late in the first quarter and could not return.
But when Minnesota suffered a similar fate, a guy who hadn't taken a regular-season snap in two years came off the bench to throw two touchdown passes to Cris Carter and rallied the Vikings. Did Tampa Bay's road hex actually make a Cinderella story out of Vikings quarterback Sean Salisbury? Well, if the shoe fits . . .
"I don't think the road jinx or whatever it happens to be was evident at the end of the game," said Bucs head coach Sam Wyche, whose team slipped into a first-place tie with the Vikings (2-1) in the NFC Central. "But I do think it showed up a little bit during the game."
It showed up a lot in the second half, when the Bucs blew a 13-6 lead and were in worse field position than, say, Candlestick Park.
Behind Salisbury, a 29-year-old backup who has bounced around from Seattle to Indianapolis to Winnipeg to Minnesota, the Vikings scored 20 straight points and made life miserable for the Bucs.
But Tampa Bay helped slip the noose around its own neck. Let's count the ways: The Bucs' best starting field position in seven drives in the second half was their 20-yard line.
Tampa Bay was penalized 12 times for 77 yards, much of it because of an overanxious offensive line and lousy kickoff-return play.
Backup quarterback Steve DeBerg was heroic, rallying the Bucs to within a touchdown of victory with 4:08 to play. But he and Testaverde combined to be sacked three times, they coughed up two turnovers, and DeBerg was even pressured into stepping on the end line for a safety.
"I think what's different from last year is we have nothing to be ashamed of today," said Testaverde, whose injury is not considered serious and is expected to start Sunday at Detroit.
"Nobody should hang their head. We played tough. We played a full four quarters. Everybody was into it. It's a tough team. We had to go up against some odds here. A very good defensive team. A lot of loud people. An away stadium. Overall, I think we handled that part okay."
But as players, the Vikings handled that part better.
Minnesota starting quarterback Rich Gannon staked his team to a 7-0 lead by taking the opening kickoff and driving it 65 yards in nine plays for a score - a 30-yard arc to Carter.
But Gannon injured his throwing hand after being drilled by rookie Santana Dotson on the touchdown pass and left the game after throwing a wobbler that was intercepted by Darryl Pollard on the next series.
A few minutes later, Testaverde was forced to call it quits. He was hit on the throwing hand by Henry Thomas after delivering a 13-yard pass to Mark Carrier, who reached the Vikings' 9 yard line.
On third-and-goal from 1, Testaverde was chased out of the pocket and called for intentional grounding, forcing the Bucs to settle for a 40-yard field goal by Ken Willis.
Testaverde's hand continued to swell, and he lost control of the snap on the Bucs' next possession.
"It caused the fumble," Testaverde said, "because I just couldn't grip the football."
Enter the dueling backup quarterbacks, who were not exactly cut from the same fabric: DeBerg, the 38-year-old veteran who has starred for five teams in the NFL; and Salisbury, not exactly a porterhouse among quarterbacks who had thrown only 12 career passes in the NFL before Sunday.
DeBerg did well to complete 19 of 29 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns.
In fact, the Bucs looked to have all the momentum entering the second half. Punter Dan Stryzinski faked a kick and completed a 12-yard pass to Darrell Fullington with 1:06 left before halftime that led to Willis' 29-yard field goal and a 13-7 lead by Tampa Bay.
It was a gutsy gamble by Wyche, who risked turning the ball over at midfield.
"Actually, it was a very good play by Dan Stryzinski," Wyche said. "He threw a pretty doggone pass. They had coverage. It was just a little soft inside, and Dan threw a good pass.
Those are the ones that are a little nervy. Part of it is acting on the sideline. I've got to act disgusted we didn't make the first down. Throw my headset down. I don't know if that was seen by anybody, but we're on the sideline going through the routine of disgust."
Wyche had that routine down pat by the end of the third quarter, but he wasn't acting.
Salisbury drove the Vikings on two consecutive touchdown drives and a 21-13 lead - the final touchdown coming on a 29-yard pass to Carter.
Not that the Bucs' defense did not have a few shining moments.
Tampa Bay sacked Salisbury five times - including 2 1/2 by linebacker Broderick Thomas and 1 1/2 by Dotson - and enjoyed an amazing goal-line stand.
But the Bucs' kickoff-return teams and penalties kept saddling the offense with poor field position.
"We did not look like ourselves," Wyche said. "We've not been having penalties. We've not been making bonehead mistakes. We made some today. We were in wrong formations. We were moving before the snap. Part of that was the crowd. You've got to give some credit to the facility they play in. It's a tremendous advantage. And the league, of course, is experimenting with the things in the headsets in the helmets for the tackles. I think they're the ones who suffer the most from it."
The Bucs also were suffering from the thought of blocking Vikings Pro Bowl defensive end Chris Doleman, who sacked DeBerg twice and recorded the safety.
"When you've got a guy like Chris Doleman, who's as fine a football player as there is in this league, you've got your hands full, and that's what happened to us today," Wyche said. "It's pretty tough to move the ball that way, especially when you're backed up, and that fires up the crowd and makes the organization of the offense even tougher."
It was not exactly the home debut Vikings coach Dennis Green had been dreaming about. His team was penalized 60 yards and failed to put the Bucs away, but the performance put the upstart Vikings back atop the standings with Tampa Bay.
"It was a real barn-burner," Green said. "It could've gone either way. We had a chance to put it away but didn't. The third quarter, I think, was more our style."
Of course, Tampa Bay fans know the Bucs lose in style on the road. That doesn't bode well for next week's game against Detroit in the Pontiac Silverdome.
"We now find out how we handle the first loss of the regular season," Wyche said. "I was proud of the way they hung in there right to the very end. They didn't give an inch. I hope this is part of the learning process. You get a team and they do some good things and you start to celebrate. Then you realize you can't celebrate very long, and you dang sure can't assume one good effort is going to bring another one."
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1992