Bennett frustrated in loss to old team

His head was down, his lips pursed. Coach Leeman Bennett walked across the field, counting the ways that his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, should have beaten his old team, the Atlanta Falcons. In mid-stride, he softly muttered an obscenity. Bennett wanted this win. Wanted it badly, though not, he insisted, to thumb his nose at the franchise that fired him following the 1982 season. "What happened in Atlanta was four years ago, and it's forgotten," Bennett said.

He wanted it for Tampa Bay, which had not strung together two wins since Bennett went from Winnebago to Bucs' coach in 1985. "It's just tough to lose a game like this," said Bennett, those lips not once forming a smile during the five-minute postmortem of the Falcons' 23-20 overtime triumph. "Not because it's Atlanta, but because we very desperately needed two wins in a row. That would have helped a young, growing football team."

He wanted it badly enough to charge onto the field in the third quarter, ranting and raving and risking a penalty because the Falcons were about to run a play with all zeroes on the 30-second clock. The official admonished Bennett and walked off five yards against the Falcons for delay of game. He wanted it badly enough to order a chancy long pass late in the fourth quarter that Warren Cason intercepted, setting the table for a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation. "It was a poor call on my part," he said. "I should have called a shorter pass, or I should have called a run."

He wanted it badly enough that he watched the overtime bent over at the waist, hands on knees, a posture that a nervous man takes when popcorn is popping inside his stomach. Bennett has now faced his former club three times in 28 preseason and regular season games as the Bucs' coach. Those meetings, which also include two exhibition defeats, have given him a good read on the Falcons. "I thought the football team that beat us today was really just about two or three years further along in the rebuilding process than we are," he said. "They hung in there tough, remained poised and were able to win. Atlanta's been building for four years now (under coach Dan Henning). They've got their people in place."

Bennett does not. His roster is laced with 11 first-year players, six of whom were not drafted by Tampa Bay. His secondary in the second half was three-fourths rookies. His quarterback, Steve Young, is an NFL novice. Other positions are occupied by stopgap help. What his team needs is confidence, which comes in packages such as two-game win streaks. A 13-point halftime lead was not enough. "Being ahead 20-7 is a situation we haven't really been in," said Young. "This is heartbreaking, but now the Falcons will be watching out for the Bucs."