Running on empty
Maybe it doesn't matter who plays quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They can swing like a pendulum back and forth each week from Vinny Testaverde to Chris Chandler, but somebody always cleans their clock. Since Sunday found the Bucs on the road in New Orleans, that only could mean it was Chandler's turn to commit sins against the Saints. Chandler obliged by throwing two interceptions, fumbling once and getting sacked six times in the Bucs' humbling 23-7 loss to unbeaten New Orleans.

The loss dropped Tampa Bay to 1-6 entering next week's long-awaited, seldom-debated tiebreaker with Green Bay to see who really is the crummiest team in the NFC Central. And while the Bucs became the first team to reach the end zone against the Saints' defense in 18 quarters, there were signs the inept offense isn't scoring many points with the Bucs' defense. "If you can't score, you can't win," Bucs defensive end Keith McCants said. "Just put it like that."

For Chandler, who struggled to complete 17 of 31 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown, Sunday's loss was his fifth in a row as the Bucs' starting quarterback. If the Bucs stick to their pattern, Testaverde's injured right thumb will feel remarkably better this morning - maybe good enough to point the way to the bench for Chandler. "Stranger things have happened," Chandler said. "That's way out of my hands. It does me no good to say anything about it. Fretting might be a little too strong. But it's like, `C'mon, give me a break.' "

If Bucs coach Richard Williamson plans on giving Chandler one, he wasn't tipping his hand Sunday. "I'm not even thinking about the quarterback situation at this point in time," Williamson said. "But I think he made some plays for us and did some things pretty well at times. He also did some things that weren't quite as good as you would've liked, too."

Among the boo-boos Chandler accounted for was converting on just 3 of 12 third-down situations and throwing a third-quarter pass for Jesse Anderson that was intercepted by Saints cornerback Toi Cook. The ill-advised pass came one play after New Orleans kicker Morten Andersen missed a 40-yard field-goal attempt wide left with the Bucs trailing 16-7. But New Orleans used the interception to drive 11 yards in three plays for their final touchdown. "When you play a team the quality of New Orleans, you've got to make some plays, and we didn't make any plays," Williamson said. "You can't give them anything because when you give a team of that quality something, they're going to make plays. They made them, and we didn't make them. I think that was the game in a nutshell."

Perhaps the most disappointing thing for the Bucs is that the Saints were ripe for an upset. Their top running back, Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, was out with a pulled hamstring and some legal problems stemming from his alleged abuse of some fans. New Orleans also was without starting quarterback Bobby Hebert, who - because of a sore shoulder - was replaced at the last minute by backup Steve Walsh.

Walsh played admirably in relief, completing 19 of 31 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown. He was intercepted twice and whacked nearly every time he threw the ball. But despite the punishment, Walsh and the Saints converted 7-of-15 third-down situations. The Bucs' defense had something to do with that. Cornerback Carl Carter mugged Quinn Early on a pass in the end zone, and the 37-yard interference penalty set up the Saints' first touchdown.

On at least two third-down situations, the Bucs' secondary was duped by underneath routes and gave up huge completions over the middle. "They didn't run the ball a lot," Williamson said. "They threw the ball a little, which is a little bit surprising because we'd been successful defending that. The first half, our defense played on the field the whole time."

McCants had perhaps his best day as a pro rushing the passer, forcing Walsh to unload the ball early on three occasions that resulted in two Tampa Bay interceptions. But the Bucs' offense never really got untracked, botching another easy scoring chance late in the game when center Tony Mayberry bounced a pair of snaps to Chandler. "I ain't got time to be pouting and crying that our offense has problems," Bucs linebacker Broderick Thomas said. "You all want to say our offense stinks. They don't, all right? We just had a little bit of misfortune."

That might be understating things a bit, but not nearly as much as Chandler did after the game. Chandler said the offense took a few steps forward against the NFL's top-rated defense. "I just felt there was more enthusiasm on the sidelines, knowing it's tough out there but we're just going to keep going at it," Chandler said.

"After one of the sacks, I got up and just smiled at the guys and said, `Hey, there's nothing else you can do except keep blocking.' They kind of chuckled a little bit. I just think it's more that type of attitude. We're trying to have fun, but we're also trying to fight and play hard. We showed signs that we're going to be a pretty good offense. Our third downs, I thought, we're better than what we had been doing. Off and on, I thought we moved the ball pretty well."

But off and on also describes Chandler and Testaverde's bizarre rotation at quarterback. What happens next week against the Packers is anybody's guess.

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1991