Bucs get X-ecution by Thomas
Meet Mr. X. He's not very big. He doesn't run all that fast. He couldn't dunk a football over the goal post unless he used Alvin Harper's wallet as a launching pad. "He is what he is," Bucs General Manager Rich McKay said. "A good solid backup in this league who, when called on, can perform."

He is Robb Thomas. He was called on Sunday, a day the NFL traditionally calls on players to perform. It's also the day the Bucs usually get a disconnected signal on the other end of the line. That's assuming the player can even pick up the phone. In Harper's case, you never know. He couldn't hold onto a football Sunday, at least not one travelling through the air. It wasn't all Harper's fault, but his lacerated hand was hardly cutting him any slack with the comatose crowd at Houlihan's Stadium. The fans weren't enduring anything they hadn't endured before. Then along came the X factor, boldly going where almost no Buc had gone before. A forgotten land known as the end zone. The following is not a misprint:

Trent Dilfer did throw three touchdown passes - all of them went to guys wearing orange pants. The Bucs did beat Minnesota 24-13. Malcolm Glazer and Bill Poe jogged hand-in-hand around the stadium throwing $100 bills to fans after the game. OK, the scene wasn't that surreal. If you listen to the Bucs, the win wasn't even all that unexpected. "It was just the game plan," Thomas said. "It worked like clockwork."

A Buc game plan usually performs like a $10 Rolex. Though it's not so much the design as all those little playing mechanisms that go haywire. If wound properly, the concept is pretty simple. Lots of defense. Mistake-free offense. Scant highlights, but fewer lowlights. "How hard is that to figure out?" center Tony Mayberry said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist."

The approach is supposed to keep games close. Close games come down to a few big plays, commonly referred to as plays the other team makes and the Bucs don't. Sunday didn't look any different. Leading the fizzle was Harper with two drops. Though he's become the fans" designated punching bag, Harper deserves credit for trying to play hurt against Minnesota. But his failure only added to the game-plan frustration that has defined this year's team. "We had some things in there for the X receiver," coach Tony Dungy said.

In other words, they knew the Vikings could be had if a) the line would protect Dilfer, b) Dilfer would remember which uniform he was supposed to pass the ball to, c) the receiver would remember to catch the ball when it got there. On a storybook day for Dungy, the replacement X receiver marked the most important spot. In many ways Thomas is the Anti-Alvin. The Seattle castoff makes onetenth what the starter does, he slings his body around on special teams and realises he is just a drop or two away from the waiver wire.

That concentration was evident when he caught a 31-yard touchdown to tie the game 7-7. Suddenly, everyone was catching on. The defense and Warren Sapp went into hyperdrive. The offense stopped cramping up in crucial situations. Thomas wasn't so fortunate. He went to the locker room long enough for an IV He returned to catch an 11-yard touchdown, giving him as many touchdowns in one half as he'd had in the previous five years. "It wasn't just me, it was a lot of people," Thomas said. "I think things were building."

It was bound to happen eventually. The Bucs couldn't go an entire season without making clutch plays. They just needed somebody to show them how. That's why Thomas had two souvenirs in his locker after the game. "It's been a long time," he said. There was no need to explain. For the Bucs, it was nice to see someone who could hold onto the ball.

David Whitley The Tampa Tribune October 1996