Who is to blame for this latest debacle?
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 23 September 1996

When there is no one to bless, all you can do is blame. If Tampa Bay knows nothing else about the NFL, it knows when it is time to round up the usual suspects. And so this time, the temptation is to blame the defense, if not for the sake of performance then for the sake of change of pace. Besides, after giving up two late touchdowns in Tampa Bay's 17-13 loss to Seattle, the Bucs' defenders all but invited the blame.

Not so fast, though. While it isn't hard to say that Tampa Bay's defense has to be able to keep opponents out of the end zone when the game is on the line, there is also this argument to be considered: 13 . . . Stupid . . . Points.

How are you going to lay this one at the feet of the defense when the Bucs continue to be outscored by half of baseball's American League? Tampa Bay has now played, using the term loosely, four football games. It has scored three touchdowns. The only way a team beats anyone with three-fourths of a touchdown per week is if the other side surrenders.

This is ridiculous. The Bucs scored exactly one touchdown, keyed when a safety ran 40 yards on a fake punt, against the 28th-ranked defense in the NFL. Take away that run by John Lynch, and Tampa Bay ran 32 times for 71 yards against the 29th-ranked rushing defense in the league. Somebody tell me again. Is a half-cent the tax that is going to build a new stadium, or the amount of the salary cap that is going toward offense? When the Bucs said Mike Shula was simplifying the offense, who knew they were talking about the point total?

Face it, you can blame the defense all you want. But 17 points shouldn't beat you. Until this offense can eat clock, until it can turn its limited opportunities into points, until Michael Husted is not kicking two field goals for every extra point, it isn't going to win. "When you score 13 points," quarterback Trent Dilfer said, "you're going to lose most of the time."

Thirteen points is pitiful. Then again, 13 points is the Bucs' second-biggest offensive explosion of the season. Now, you tell me why this team is 0-dash-4. "We left a lot of points on the field," guard Ian Beckles said. "We have to make more out of our chances. We have the potential to be scoring 30 points a game."

Thirty a game? The Bucs have barely scored 30 this season. Blame it on Bill Clinton. Since he talked to them a few weeks back, they somehow have confused the red zone with a no-fly zone. You want to know why the Bucs are 0-4? Because they treat the end zone as if it were the dead zone. This season, Tampa Bay has been inside the opponent's 20 10 times. It has two touchdowns from those trips. Two. In all, it has been outscored 61-32 in the red zone.

"It's poise," Dilfer said. "We're not poised when we get into the end zone, and I'll take part of the responsibility for that. You only get so many chances. It's a thought process. When you get down there, you should know exactly what you're doing, so everything seems to happen in slow motion. With us, it's the opposite, it's like everything speeds up. We've got to be poised, and we've got to be mentally sharp."

It doesn't seem like a lot to ask. Other teams get near the end zone, and the defense rocks back on its heels and tries to figure out what is happening. With the Bucs, the game turns into the Michael Husted Highlight Reel. Sunday, the Bucs had 12 plays inside the Seattle 20. They ran seven times for 13 yards. Not once did Tampa Bay throw a pass into the end zone. You figure it out.

The thing is, the problems aren't just when the team gets close to scoring, either. Run the tape back to the final three minutes. The Bucs led 13-10, and Seattle had only one timeout left. Time for even a mediocre offense to close the door.

Not Tampa Bay. On first down, Dilfer threw the ball away. On second down, Reggie Brooks gained 1 yard up the middle. On third and 9, Dilfer threw a fastball to Alvin Harper. The ball scooted through his fingers at the 31. The entire drive took up 38 seconds and gained 1 yard. Had Harper caught the ball, the Bucs could have eaten more than a minute off the clock and forced Seattle to use its last timeout. The Seahawks get the ball back with barely over a minute to play instead of 2:22. Instead of a drive that is methodical, the Seahawks need one that is a miracle.

It was the lastest debacle by Harper, who was showered with boos and taunts as he left the field. "They've got a right," he said. "You're paid to make those catches. Late in the game, you want the ball to come to you. It just went through my damn hands. It's almost like there is no excuse."

All together now: Almost? For the Bucs, the big problem isn't who the public blames. It's whether the team joins in. How does this team guard against doubt now that the rest of us have it? "We need to stay together," Dilfer said. "When a team is 0-4, there are a lot bigger things going on than Xs and Os. We need to tighten up and not point fingers."

For the Bucs, that shouldn't be hard to do. Who around here believes in points?