Bucs don't go far enough in comeback attempt
We've been trying to nickname Tampa Bay's defense. Sunday's first quarter suggested "Counterfeit Bucs." It was that shocking. Bordering on "Putrid Pewter." Before the quarter died, Minnesota bombardiers Randall Cunningham and Randy Moss had triggered a 21-0 mutilation. Vikings getting 17- plus yards per play against the NFL's supposedly dandiest D. Ugly aberration, chances are.

Metrodome patrons were asking, "Is Warren Sapp that good?" Tony Dungy wouldn't grab a crutch. "Vikings were so hot at the beginning," mused Tampa Bay's coach, "having No. 99 at tackle wouldn't have helped much."

Oh, by the way, Sapp promises to work Sunday's challenge in Green Bay, even if with a cast on his busted hand. "It's too miserable, just watching," he said. "It was like the Chinese drip torture." But not a total loss. With the 21-zip quandary, something intriguing would happen with the Bucs. Down so quickly by three touchdowns, not even ultra- conservative Tampa Bay could justify playing Prevent Offense.

Dome noise was louder than a teenager's dream. Purple snake pit. Tampa Bay loosened its offensive handcuffs. Slugged back. There could be no stab at rallying, unless on Trent Dilfer's widely criticized passing arm. After 15 minutes, Sunday seemed headed for the worst loss in Bucs history, eclipsing a 42-0 wipeout against Pittsburgh in the franchise's 0-14 inaugural season of 1976. A little air, Trent.

He began to zip completions. Dilfer hit seven straight, gaining 70 yards, including a TD laser for 26 to Dave Moore. Sure, the Vikes had loosened defensive coverages, playing more safely than aggressively with a huge lead. Whatever, we saw a hint of the Dilfer that Tampa Bay has insatiably craved. Bucs defenders would rebound. Further offensive opportunity arose. Five minutes before halftime, there came a second-and-1 chance at midfield. Vikings by then on their defensive heels. Instead of taking a smash with 248-pound runner Mike Alstott, the Bucs tried the miniscule Warrick Dunn.

Twice, the 178-pound scooter ran off tackle. Dunn was buried. No gain. No gain. Bucs were missing their blocking fullback. Patrick Hape was hurt. He is Alstott's designated pathmaker. Still, why not give A-Train a whistle? It became fourth down. Still a yard to go. On the previous possession, Dilfer had prodded the Bucs so beautifully, becoming Mr. Accuracy on a touchdown trip. Why not try to build further confidence?

With just 3:50 before halftime, go for it! It might've changed a mentality. Dungy could've told his offense, "We've got faith in you guys. Go for it! Jam it home!" Instead, the Bucs punted. "We didn't want to give Minnesota a short field," Tony explained. "If the Vikings got a field goal and a 17-point halftime lead, our chances became far worse."

I still disagree. In the second half, Minnesota's offense went from mercurial to near-meltdown. Moss pretty much disappeared. Tampa Bay's defense was recouping, although not to dominant levels of games against the New York Giants, Philadelphia and Denver.

Sunday would become worlds of fun. Exhilarating. Dramatic. Entertaining. Like pro football is supposed to be. Instead of surrendering, clasping hands over helmets and accepting a 50- something-point clobbering, the Bucs showed competitive heart, both offensively and defensively. Twice in the closing minutes, Tampa Bay was within one dramatic Dilfer hit of overcoming the entire 21-0 deficit. "I wouldn't call this a breakthrough for our offense," he said. "Minnesota was playing a lot of soft zones. We needed to do more." Trent completed 25 of 39 throws (64 percent) for 301 yards and two TDs.

A minute later, I saw the Bucs quarterback sitting alone in the losing locker room. Muttering to himself, "I've got to get us in the end zone." For only his conscience to hear. Probably, he was remembering a fourth-and-1 episode late in the fourth quarter at the Minnesota 21. Yeah, it did haunt.

After a timeout, the Bucs flared Dunn up the right side. Tampa Bay got the coverage it wanted from the Vikes. But, while not doing well at evading enemy rushers, Dilfer rushed his pass and misfired. It was intercepted by Corey Miller, a linebacker. Overcoming too much to ask. Next time, against the Packers, maybe Tampa Bay's offensive minds can feel justified in sowing even more creativity, before Green Bay can run a 21-0 lead or some such.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1999