Bucs revert to form
He stood behind a podium near the locker room, perhaps sensing his first campaign as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach slipping away, and made more promises that his team cannot seem to keep. He refused to take a position on the key issues, such as who will quarterback the Bucs the next week, the next game or the next play.
Ever the politician, Sam Wyche guaranteed things would get better but offered no plan that guaranteed they couldn't also get worse.
But after the Bucs' 38-7 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday, Tampa Bay players were left pondering one question: Is this team really better off than it was four months ago?
"We played just a lousy football game," Wyche said. "I apologize to our fans. They supported us too long, too well, for us to come out and play that kind of a game. I don't have an explanation for you. We'll find it. We'll correct it. This is going to be a long, hard battle, but we'll win it."
There certainly wasn't much evidence of improvement by the Bucs, who lost their third in a row as they allowed Detroit quarterback Rodney Peete to throw three touchdown passes and running back Barry Sanders to rush for a season-high 122 yards and two scores. The loss dropped Tampa Bay (3-4) into third place in the NFC Central and gave the team a losing record for the first time this season.
It also may have marked the beginning of the end of a career in Tampa Bay for beleaguered quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who was benched in the second quarter in favor of 39-year-old Steve DeBerg with the Bucs trailing 21-0. Although Wyche said he still has confidence in Testaverde, he refused to commit to him as the starting quarterback next week in New Orleans.
"If we think our best chance to win next week is with Steve (DeBerg), we'll go with that," Wyche said. "It doesn't mean we have less confidence in anybody else who's not in the lineup. Maybe it's the better way to go. Maybe we need that little shakeup, that little fresh start with somebody else. I can understand the fans' frustration but I got hired to evaluate everyone, and if I can turn around a player who's been frustrating to the fans, then I'm going to turn him around. If we're right at the point of turning him around and we hit a stumbling block, it doesn't mean we quit. But that also doesn't necessarily mean that we don't make a change."
So there you don't have it, straight from Wyche's lips. Sunday's loss looked painfully familiar to Testaverde, to say nothing of the 53,995 fans at Tampa Stadium.
It was the third time in as many seasons, under that many coaches, that Testaverde had been benched while other parts of the team collapsed around his feet.
"Now that it's happened, I guess it seems like a pattern we've developed here," Testaverde said. "I've been in this position before. Whatever his decision is, I'm sure we'll learn to live with it. At the beginning of the year, Sam said I was going to get the first snap. He didn't promise me much after that. Whatever his decision is, we'll have to learn to live with."
But there are several things from Sunday's loss that the Bucs cannot live with if they hope to end their three-game losing streak, to wit:
A weak defense: Tampa Bay's secondary was toasted early and often by Peete, who passed for 208 yards and threw touchdown passes to Willie Green, Herman Moore and Brett Perriman before putting on a baseball cap early in the fourth quarter.
Peete was at least an equal-opportunity offender. Green's 29-yard touchdown burned cornerback Milton Mack on a post route. Moore's 63-yard touchdown came courtesy of rookie cornerback Rogerick Green, who slipped trying to defend an underthrown pass. And Perriman outraced cornerback Garry Lewis to the end zone with a 4-yard scoring catch. Detroit, 22nd in the NFL in total offense, amassed a season-high 400 yards. "No coverage is going to work if you don't get pressure," Bucs defensive coordinator Floyd Peters said. "So you start with no sacks. The second part of it is that the secondary has got to be competitive. When you see defensive team miss tackles, no sacks, no fumbles, then they're not competitive."
Crippling special (team) interests: After DeBerg came off the bench to cut the Lions' lead to 21-7 with 32 seconds left in the first half by completing seven passes during an 80-yard touchdown drive, the Bucs squibbed the kickoff to Detroit's Mel Gray, who returned it 89 yards to set up a 27-yard field goal by rookie Jason Hanson.
"Mel Gray's a great player, and he's going to make a lot of people look bad, but we sure are easy prey for him," Wyche said.
Earlier this season, in a game the Bucs won, Gray returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Poor foreign relations: Linebacker Broderick Thomas, who contributed just two tackles, was in the middle of fisticuffs after nearly every play and cost the Bucs 15 yards for a late hit on Peete. Thomas also shoved Hanson after an extra point and generally annoyed Peters.
"That's uncalled for," Peters said of Thomas' antics. "That's embarrassing to defensive coaches, the defense and to the whole team when Broderick does what he did out there. That's uncalled for. You can't play professional football and have that kind of an attitude. He's gone well beyond the realm of control when he can't control his emotions. To me, all that is is your own personal gratification because you're mad because you're losing. This is a business, not Pop Warner football or some semi-pro football team that's just out there for laughs and beers."
Overall, the loss was a collection of everything awful that has led to nine consecutive seasons of at least 10 losses. After Sanders scored on a 55-yard run to give the Lions a 31-7 lead with 3:31 left in the third quarter, Tampa Stadium emptied. Testaverde must have read the tea-leaves. He had called Sunday's game a must-win for both his team and his career. Then, after going 5-of-11 for 26 yards and throwing an interception, he got the hook.
"I just had to shake it up," Wyche said. "He overthrew one pass and you'd thought he'd thrown 15 over somebody's head. The only way you shake up a team and try to get something generated is to change that position. This has been bad luck in some ways for him because I don't take any blame away from receivers who can't catch a football right square in their hands - not just today but for the last few weeks."
Say what you want about Wyche, but he hasn't lost his constituency. "The fact I've been down this road before just makes it that much worse," Bucs tackle Rob Taylor said. "It's a sick, embarrassed, tired type of feeling. I'm getting tired of trying to make excuses and saying the team's coming around and not having the answers. If I were a fan, I'd put my confidence in the head coach and I think I'd lose a little confidence in the players right now. I have confidence the coach we have right now will get this team where it needs to be. I don't know when. I don't know how."
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1992