Testaverde casts future to the Lions
So you want to pull the plug on Tampa Bay quarterback Vinny Testaverde? Think the whole season is down the pipes if the Bucs don't beat Detroit? At least one player agreed that Testaverde's future in general and the Bucs' record in particular could take a turn for the scrap heap with a loss to the Lions on Sunday at Tampa Stadium: It was Testaverde.

Tampa Bay's Public Enemy No. 14 personally invited the pressure. "It could go either way," Testaverde said of the Bucs' fragile fortunes. "It should be a big game for us. We should put that kind of pressure on ourselves to go out and win, because it could be that important of a game for us. We should make it a must-win game. I hate to think of it this way, but it could change things around for us if we lose. And certainly if we win, it can brighten things up. It depends on how we react. If we lose this game and some of these guys decide, `Well, same old Bucs. We'll just go out and get our paychecks' - which I don't think is going to happen - that will affect my performance."

Testaverde struggled through one of his worst days of the season in Sunday's 31-14 loss at Chicago, completing 16 of 32 passes for 171 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. The final turnover - a pass intended for Reggie Cobb that was intercepted by Shaun Gayle with five minutes to play and the Bucs trailing 21-7 - sealed the game for the Bears. With a tough road game at New Orleans sandwiched around home games against the Lions and NFC Central leader Minnesota, Testaverde said the Bucs have entered the critical part of their schedule. A loss to Detroit could be particularly devastating, especially since Tampa Bay has not won a game at New Orleans since 1982.

But coach Sam Wyche warned it is too early to start writing Testaverde's obituary this season. "It's a little unfair to say Vinny played badly and this is the old Vinny and that kind of stuff," Wyche said. "That's unfair. I think Vinny's getting better. I think you get better and still not get to the point where you're going to win every Sunday. You don't wave a magic wand and have the quarterback or the right guard or anybody else play exactly the way you want him to play every snap. You go through things. I just think Vinny is such a target. It's part of the territory. And he understands it. And I understand he's going to get it. My job and my decisions will be made independent of the speculation."

Even Wyche, after Sunday's game, speculated that Testaverde threw off his back foot and put too much air under the pass intended for Cobb. But upon review of the game film Monday, rookie Willie Culpepper, the unintended receiver, failed to occupy Gayle when he misread the coverage and ran an incorrect route. "He didn't have one of his best outings, but I noticed Vinny has gotten the blame for a lot of things that were a little out of his control," Wyche said.

"That interception with five minutes to go was clearly not the quarterback's fault. It's a call against a two-deep zone pass. We got the two-deep zone. The receivers have to read the coverage. If it's two-deep, they run deep down the sideline to control the deep (coverage). One of our receivers misread the coverage, ran a route that didn't occupy the safety that intercepts the ball. Vinny didn't see the safety fall off, which maybe a quarterback should've seen too.

"It still shouldn't have been thrown," Testaverde said. "Sometimes you don't get to see everybody."

What is refreshing for Testaverde is how Wyche has held other players' hands to the fire instead of heaping the blame on his quarterback. According to Testaverde, other coaches would have made him a scapegoat. "The thing about Sam, he sees the whole picture and explains it to you and makes everybody on the whole team see it, so not everybody is pointing the finger at one guy," Testaverde said. "It's not like something in the past where it would go unnoticed and I'd get all the blame and the other guys would not worry about it - even if they did mess up."

According to Wyche, there's no reason for Bucs fans to think they will get a look at Steve DeBerg soon. "I've seen Vinny play better, but he didn't have a bad ballgame," Wyche said. "Is it all his fault? No. Is it partly his fault. Sure. But we're a new group trying to make things work and we can't be giving up on things that we see getting better and better just because it isn't happening right now."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1992