Finally, a happy ending
The boos poured down from Tampa Stadium like the steady drizzle, splashing against the ears of quarterback Vinny Testaverde and a Buccaneers offense that kept coming up dry. So bad were Tampa Bay's fortunes that the Bucs turned the ball over five times in 14 plays at one point in the second half Sunday against Philadelphia. But when it looked as if the Bucs could only produce 3 yards and a cloud of fumbles, the reign ended for Testaverde.

Losing his grip of the football because of a fractured thumb - as well as his hold on the quarterback position - Testaverde was replaced by Chris Chandler, who threw a pair of touchdown passes in the final five minutes to lead the Bucs to an improbable 14-13 comeback victory over the Eagles.

It was the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in the Bucs' 16-year history, snapping a seven-game losing streak and giving coach Richard Williamson his second victory since he inherited the team last November. "The happiest man around this place is me, I'll tell you that," Williamson said. "And the next happiest is those guys in there. We won it right at the end, where we've lost some the first five weeks."

And to think it almost was not to be. Punter Jeff Feagles provided the ending to Philadelphia's story, bobbling away a fourth-quarter snap and being smothered by Broderick Thomas at Tampa Bay's 8-yard line with the Eagles leading 13-0. Two plays later, Chandler fired an 8-yard touchdown pass to fullback Robert Wilson and the comeback was on.

The Bucs' defense, which was heroic in forcing four turnovers and holding Philadelphia to 171 total yards, stopped the Eagles on three plays the next series to set up the winning touchdown drive. After the Bucs took over at midfield, Chandler completed four passes - including a 5-yard touchdown to Bruce Hill with 1 minute, 9 seconds left. "It all happened so fast," Chandler said. "One minute I'm standing on the sideline, and the next I'm in there and we win the game. I felt a little added pressure to try and make up for what I did against Buffalo. To get down there and let that last pass get away, I've always thought about that. This kind of erases it."

Erased also was the wobbly status of Williamson, whose team walked a tightrope between discord and harmony last week. Having lost seven consecutive games and facing an open week in which teams normally make coaching changes, Williamson's future appeared in doubt. But Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse put an end to speculation with a rare, impromptu meeting with players in the Bucs' locker room just before the game. "Richard just said, `Everybody up,' " Testaverde said. "We just kind of circled up, and he said, `Mr. C. would like to say something.' He just came in and said he was angry somebody asked him a question about Richard being fired. He told us it wasn't going to happen. It was certainly unexpected. It totally surprised us. But I think it put some things that were floating around to rest."

Not put to rest was the Bucs' quarterback situation. All week, Testaverde had insults spiraled his way by Chandler, who said he had outplayed the Heisman Trophy winner. Then Chandler made those comments stand up against the Eagles Sunday. Testaverde looked miserable in completing just 5-of-18 passes for 52 yards. He was intercepted once and sacked three times. He also lost a fumble, which Eagles linebacker Seth Joyner recovered in the end zone for a touchdown in the third quarter.

But Testaverde's benching was the result of a fractured thumb he sustained late in the second quarter. Knowing the finger was broken, he tried to play through the pain - in part because Chandler had accused him of not being tough. But Williamson finally made the decision to yank him after the fumble. "I knew I couldn't throw like I wanted to," Testaverde said. "There were a couple throws that were almost picked off because I couldn't get the push on the ball and guide it like I wanted. You don't want to be selfish, but in a way you do. It's a tough decision for me to say I can't play. Richard wanted me to make it, and I wasn't going to. I wasn't coming off the field unless they had to carry me."

Chandler came in and produced respectable numbers in relief: 7-of-11 for 105 yards and two touchdowns. But he was intercepted twice and was fortunate to hit Lawrence Dawsey on a pass intended for Hill on the winning touchdown drive. When Feagles dropped the snap to start the Eagles' downfall, the Bucs figured they had a good chance. "That was like the golden egg," Hill said. "That was our opportunity to win the game. All we needed to do was punch it in, and we'd get the ball back."

But when Feagles fumbled, Testaverde got a sick feeling in his stomach because he wouldn't be given a chance to win the game. "After everything that had been said this week, it was like a stab right in the back," Testaverde said. "But I'm glad we won because that takes some pressure off."

All the pressure now belongs to the Eagles, who were using their third starting quarterback of the year in rookie free agent Brad Goebel. Goebel's assignment: Don't do anything that would cost his team the game. "I figured they thought they could run the ball and let their defense win it for them," Bucs linebacker Jesse Solomon said. "Don't do anything offensively to get them in the ballgame, and the defense will win it. If they could win 13-10, they'd gladly take it and go home. But it didn't turn out that way."

How things will turn out for Testaverde and Chandler is anyone's guess. On Sunday, Williamson refused to say who will start at New Orleans in two weeks. He's just grateful he'll be the one making the decision. "I'd like to feel as if I'm going to be the guy two weeks from now," Chandler said. "But again, you can get too excited and have a letdown."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1991