In struggle, Bucs show some hope
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 16 September 1996

It was the best thing that could have happened. At the darkest of all possible moments, the Tampa Bay Bucs found themselves in a night game. And guess what? Maybe, just maybe, the Bucs found a bit of light along the way.

No, they did not beat the Denver Broncos. They lost 27-23. John Elway led his team on another comeback a mile high, and the Broncos snatched away what could have been a glorious night. The Bucs were left to find adjectives for their third defeat in three games.

But there is a difference between winless and hopeless. For the first time this season, Tampa Bay looked like a football team. For the first time, the Bucs offered a hint that tomorrow might not look like yesterday.

It isn't much, and it isn't nearly enough. The Bucs have spent far too many years trying to pretty up a defeat and call it hope. In some ways, finding nobility in any loss says more about how terrible the past has been instead of how wonderful the future will be. But when a team has been nowhere, it welcomes any sign that it is going somewhere else.

This time, there were reasons to smile. A team that had given us nothing but despair finally offered hope. "We're still disappointed we lost," coach Tony Dungy said. "But we had some people make some plays."

There was Reggie Brooks, ripping through holes before they turned back into walls. Brooks looked like a legitimate home-run hitter. Better, he looked like a reason for a linebacker, and a fan, to get off his quarterback's back. There was Jackie Harris, giving up his body like Kellen Winslow. He knocked two blockers down with one block. He caught. He left the field twice to get IVs and returned.

There was Alvin Harper, showing why he deserved the money. He pulled in a 40-yard TD that was 90 percent catch, 10 percent throw. There was Mike Alstott fighting for yardage and Jason Odom holding his own and an offensive line opening holes and granting a passer time. And, yes, there was Trent Dilfer. He threw another interceptionthat was returned for a touchdown, and he fumbled on the team's last chance. Before last week, Dilfer had never had an interception returned for a score. Now he has two in two weeks.

But like his team, Dilfer's play argued his self-defense. He read the blitz and hit Harper for a 37-yarder. He looked stronger in the pocket, more sure. For the first time all season, the Dilfer doubters did not include Dilfer. For the first time, he looked like he had room to grow. He had turned into a local punching bag and a national punch line, and his offense had looked punchless. Chris Berman made sport of Dilfer, and it was hard to blame him. A 17.6 QB rating isn't much defense. But like his team, Dilfer found a little bit of footing Sunday.

"I'm as disappointed as last week," Dilfer said. "But when you're 0-3, you can throw in the towel, or you can look for positives. This gives us hope. I know you're tired of hearing it, and I'm tired of saying it, but this is going to be a good offense."

Again, it was not enough. But remind yourself of what the nation expected on this night. This was supposed to be over quicker than a Tyson fight. The Bucs brought the league's worst offense into its worst place to play, so what could you expect besides Tampa Bay's worst beating? Denver was favored by 14, and the smart guys were saying that wasn't nearly enough.

Yes, the Bucs say they came to town not for moral victories but the other kind. What else can they say? But when a team's worst enemy has turned into self-doubt, this was a reason to believe. In Tony Dungy. In Mike Shula. In Dilfer and Harper and Odom and the rest of them. For this regime, Sunday night was at least a place to begin. For one night, at least, Dungy's philosophy of teaching looked like it was working. Shula's offense did not look as if it were trying to force outside runners into running inside and third-team tailbacks into running draw plays.

And now Tampa Bay goes into a segment of its schedule where it can make some strides. That said, Dilfer still makes too many wild throws. The pass rush caves in at the wrong times. The receivers need to make plays the way they did. And too many drives end in field goals instead of touchdowns.

But on a night that was defeat instead of disaster, it was possible to look for a better day. This time, all was not lost. This time, it was just a football game.