YUCK!
If you live in the Tampa Bay area, chances are you've got the Buccaneers' quarterback controversy all wrong again. Instead of asking who should quarterback the Bucs, maybe the bigger question is: Who can?

Starter Craig Erickson threw too many passes over his receivers' heads. Rookie Trent Dilfer looked as if he were in way over his head. In Sunday's 34-13 laugh-track loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the Bucs' quarterback merry-go-round cranked into high gear and left everyone a little sick to their stomachs. Erickson was so ineffective that he was benched early in the second quarter. Dilfer was rattled into throwing three interceptions - including two by Vinnie Clark, setting up a touchdown and a field goal.

"When you shake something up, you shake it up with the guy with the ball in his hand and that's the quarterback," Bucs coach Sam Wyche said. "It's not anything we're going to keep on doing. We changed the quarterbacks because after Trent threw the final interception there, it was my decision to get him off the horse for awhile and let him settle down."

Whoa, Nellie. According to Wyche, Erickson will be back in the saddle when the Bucs play at San Francisco Oct. 23. He returned to the game in the second half and finished 18 of 30 passing for 172 yards and produced the Bucs' only touchdown - an 11-yard pass to tight end Jackie Harris. The loss dropped the Bucs to 2-4 heading into their bye week and two games out of the NFC Central lead. The Falcons improved to 4-2 heading into next week's showdown with NFC West co-leader San Francisco. "There's no excuses, I just didn't get it done," said Erickson. "I'm not going to reach for something or look for a psychologist. They had an explosive team over there that we needed to keep off the field and we didn't hold up our end of the bargain."

Meanwhile, the Bucs' defense was no match for the high-flying Falcons receivers and reborn quarterback Jeff George, who threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns. Playing a gimmick defense without a true linebacker and seven defensive backs, the Bucs also had trouble slowing 265-pound running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns.

Defensive back Charles Dimry got the Bucs in trouble early by committing a 31-yard pass interference penalty to set up the Falcons' first touchdown, and then was burned deep on a 36-yard TD pass from George to Andre Rison. To make matters worse, Erickson started the game misfiring horribly, hitting only four of his first 10 passes. At one point, he missed on four straight and had three that were dropped interceptions.

By the time Wyche went to Dilfer, with 4:59 left in the first half, the Bucs trailed 17-0. Dilfer completed four straight passes to lead the Bucs to a field goal as the first half ended. But he struggled against the blitz and failed to get the Bucs into the right pass protection. "Two of the interceptions were caused because we didn't pick up the blitz," Dilfer said. "I knew the blitz was coming, I knew what to check to and I just didn't check to it. It was just bonehead rookie mistakes. When you play bad, you don't make excuses. I played poorly at times and it cost us. We weren't out of the game at that time. We got two big breaks with field position and I took those breaks away from us with bad throws."

Wyche defended both quarterbacks - especially Dilfer, the $16.5-million rookie, who finished 6-of-11 for 81 yards and three interceptions. "The adrenaline was flowing. I think that was part of Craig's problems throwing the ball high," Wyche said. "The ball was just flying out of that chute. Trent went through some of the learning experiences that young quarterbacks go through. The deal is when you have a new one, you go through them with him. He's still going to be a big-time quarterback. He's got all the tools."

It was hard even for Wyche to find a silver lining Sunday. The Bucs' running game vaporized behind the Falcons' eight-man front. Running for his life, Erickson led Tampa Bay with 20 of the team's 32 yards rushing. The offensive line caved in, allowing five sacks and constant pressure on Erickson and Dilfer. "We got outplayed by a team that was playing too good for us," Wyche said. "Period. We knew we'd have some big plays, we'd have people open and we had to execute those plays. We knew protection would be the key. The protection didn't hold up."

Erickson seemed puzzled why he started so poorly Sunday at the Georgia Dome - the site of his best game as a pro last season when he threw four TD passes. "It's got to be close to 20 starts I've had and you'd think I'd come out, get on stride from the get-go," Erickson said.

There's reason to wonder if Erickson is looking over his shoulder at Dilfer and pressing not to make a mistake early in the game. "Craig's still our starter," Wyche said. "This is a process that we see in the development of a young quarterback. At some point, that quarterback becomes developed to the point that you say you're ready to play any time."

Even former Florida State star Casey Weldon got into the game and was effective, completing all six of his attempts for 58 yards and driving the Bucs to another field goal as the game ended. But Wyche isn't ready to sacrifice the remainder of the season to develop young players. "We're a couple of games out with an awful lot of football left to play," Wyche said. "I told the team that losers concede the season now. You'll see some teams get into a 2-4 or 1-5 and they immediately become losers. They say, `This is it. We can't come back from this.' Well, if you've got a bad football team, I guess that's maybe part of the decision. This is not a bad football team."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1994