Bucs show new life in a road loss
Burger King is going to fancy tablecloths, Little League champs are being defrocked for international cheating, Madonna is playing baseball in a league of her own, and the Soviet Union is no longer on the map, but the new world order wasn't quite ready for the Tampa Bay Bucs to win a road game and have a 3-0 record. Some things take time.

Tampa Bay went undefeated for 2 1/2 games, until Sunday's second half against the Minnesota Vikings, when the new and improved Bucs began imitating the bad, old Bucs. They broke down physically, cracked up mentally and messed up a 15th consecutive trip. But it's not "same old . . . "

Sam Wyche's rebuilt ship remains afloat, and lumbering ahead, even if it does spring an occasional leak against solid opposition like the Vikings and runs aground in hostile places like the Metrodome. Can't you see a difference?

If those had been the old Bucs, the Tampa Bay corner would have been throwing in towels and saying "Tsk! Tsk!" while allowing their on-the-road deficit to mushroom to 40-13 or some such ugliness. Sam's men erred but didn't quit. "This team showed a little bit of character," said 38-year-old Steve DeBerg, born again as a Tampa Bay quarterback after four seasons of victorious exile in Kansas City. "Just when it seemed the roof was caving in, the new Bucs came up with a great late touchdown drive. We had a go at (winning) it."

Tampa Bay led 13-7 at halftime, with DeBerg working in place of injured starter Vinny Testaverde, but soon the Bucs' mental/physical meltdowns cursed the old QB with the worst field position this side of Leavenworth solitary confinement. In seven Tampa Bay second-half possessions, self-inflicted Bucs horrors - from offensive tackles Paul Gruber and Charles McRae flinching ahead of the snap to Gary Anderson goof-ups on kickoff returns - put them back to their 13-yard line, their 15, their 4, their 4, their 1, their 20 and their 12. It was their undoing.

Metrodome patrons, who had been rather quiet and quite bored for two quarters, began to vocally respond as Minnesota's defense shoved the Bucs back, back, back. It got louder than a Led Zeppelin finale. DeBerg's mates couldn't hear him, so the Bucs went to a "silent count," where linemen and receivers go "one-one-thousand . . . two-one-thousand" to themselves. "It can get hairy," DeBerg said, "when you're an offensive tackle who's having to give extra concentration to the snap count while looking across at Chris Doleman, one of football's quickest and best pass rushers. When Doleman jumps around, it's hard for a blocker to not flinch."

Gruber flinched more than once. "We had a lot of mental bust-ups," the 290-pound right tackle said. "It's tough when you get behind in the Metrodome or in Detroit (the Silverdome), where the noise gets so loud it echoes off the roof. We didn't play smart offensively. Good teams find ways to win on the road. We're valiantly searching."

But just when the Bucs were about to be boiled in Minnesota oil, DeBerg "got lucky" . . . by being sacked. Operating from the Tampa Bay 1-yard line, he was chased out of the end zone by Doleman. Referee Bob McElwee signaled a safety. DeBerg didn't know. He threw a pass. It was intercepted by linebacker Van Waiters at the 2, and he cruised across for an apparent touchdown. But no, it was a safety. Two points instead of six. Minnesota's lead was 26-13, not 31-13.

There was a whimpering breath of Tampa Bay hope. Being down by only 13 allowed the aforementioned showing of character by the new Bucs. DeBerg, operating from the shotgun formation he prefers, began at last to get the football to Anderson. Like popping corn, Bucs gains came - primarily from the 31-year-old tailback - for 10 yards, then 7, 22, 12 and 15. DeBerg then threaded a 14-yard scoring pass to Lawrence Dawsey.

It was 26-20 Vikings, and even if Tampa Bay never got another legitimate shot, the Bucs had showed something. Their next chance comes six days from now, on the road again, in a dome again, against the Detroit Lions. Sam's ship leaks, but it is trying.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1992