Eagles give, and Bucs are happy to take
Just as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were digging their way to a lower hell, burning with ineptitude and hopelessness, and boring Tampa Stadium patrons to tears and screaming vulgarities, Philadelphia's punter dropped a snap. With 4:59 to go, a 13-0 Eagles lead seemed safer than Fort Knox gold. Tampa Bay's offense had the continuing, relentless odor of rotting fish. History, too, was an enemy. Never in their 15 1/3 predominantly putrid seasons had the Bucs successfully rallied from more than a 10-points deficit in the fourth quarter.

Then suddenly, in a Buc-like act, Jeff Feagles muffed the football. It fell like ice water on inflamed, starving Tampa Bay throats. Uncharacteristically, the Bucs would turn it into wine, and their first win after a month of miserable NFL Sundays. Chris Chandler, quarterback relief for a misfiring Vinny Testaverde, who had played half a game with a fractured thumb, was similarly failing with back-to-back interceptions.

But, after Feagles' faux pas at the Eagles' 8-yard line, Chandler immediately spun a touchdown pass to running back Robert Wilson. Bucs fans, who were leaving early, stopped in stadium exits to look. Finally, it was worth watching.

Philadelphia, having lost quarterbacks Randall Cunningham and Jim McMahon to injuries, was limping along with rookie free agent Brad Goebel. Eagles coach Rich Kotite has little trust in the kid's passing, but, for 55 minutes, Philly had comfortably gotten along on the running of Heath Sherman. Until the Feagles muff. Until the Bucs defrosted.

Once the Eagles became desperate for a Goebel completion, in the final three minutes to protect a 13-7 edge, the neophyte from Baylor horribly underthrew Roy Green on third down. By then, the half-empty ballpark was in a hopeful shout. Led by big-mouth, big-play linebacker Broderick Thomas, Tampa Bay's defense had limited Philadelphia's crippled and crummy offense to 171 yards, fewest allowed by the Bucs since 1980. And, finally, a Tampa Bay quarterback began to get not only good, but lucky.

Chandler snapped a 17-yard pass to Lawrence Dawsey, advancing to Philly's 24. Clock ticking, down to the last 83 seconds. Chandler was rushed by Reggie White and other Eagle meanies. The quarterback recalled thinking, "Out of time; got to let the football fly." Chandler thought he spotted Bruce Hill open. A pass flew. A completion. But to Dawsey. "I'll admit it," Chandler said. "My pass was meant for Bruce, but it was overthrown and landed in Dawsey's hands. I'll take it. We'll take it." The clutch-strong rookie from FSU sidestepped an Eagles tackler and steamed to the 5-yard line.

You know the rest. Chandler was by then in Magic Land. With 1:13 to go, he saw a midfield weakness in the Eagles' coverage. Chandler checked off, calling an audible to Hill. Bruce broke incredibly free. This time the football went where intended, into Hill's mitts, for a game-winning touchdown. Tampa Bay won 14-13. Incredibly so.

Soon, embattled Bucs head coach Richard Williamson stood grinning amid massive giddiness in the Bucs' locker room. "Happiest man in this place is me," he chortled. Maybe so, but celebrants were everywhere. Linebacker Thomas babbled like the cocksure Muhammad Ali of long ago.

Four hours before, Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, saying he was angry at endless questions about Williamson's coaching future, had made a unique appearance before Tampa Bay players to suggest all was cool and stable. But, for 55 minutes against the Eagles, everything was at least as ugly as it had been throughout the team's 0-5 September. Then along comes punter Feagles, to muff a snap and trigger legitimate joy in Williamson's bullet-riddled camp. "I'm glad he dropped it," said the Bucs' coach. "I thank him very much. We've given so many gifts this season, it was time we received one."

Broderick Thomas termed it "a new start to our NFL life, with plans for many, many good and victorious times." We'll see. For next week, oddsmakers have made Tampa Bay a two-point favorite over Bye. Break up the Bucs!

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1991