Halloween's team clings to its treat
When you're the Tampa Bay Bucs, you don't get a lot of 31-3 leads. What to do? Keep gunning, seeking a 52-3 slaughter? How about massaging the Georgia Dome clock, using solid running and safe passes to coast with unwavering NFL aplomb to, say, comfortable 38-17 domination of the Atlanta Falcons? But no, this is Tampa Bay and the Bucs do things differently.

They've always been Halloween's team. Pro football's orange pumpkins. But on this trick-or-treat Sunday, the Bucs had uncharacteristically burned Atlanta - and Deion Sanders - with two deep Craig Erickson scoring throws to flying, back-flipping rookie Horace Copeland. Tampa Bay faced a new kind of challenge, being ahead by four touchdowns with 17 minutes to play. They opted for unique Bucs R Us style, blowing pass coverages and allowing a 51-yard punt return and letting the Falcons block a punt. Nightmare on Peachtree Street?

Bucs offense, defense and special teams suddenly were crumbling in equal, pitiful concert. Whatever it took to put Sunday into final jeopardy, they did it with Three Stooges flair. Reggie Cobb, a rare Tampa Bay rock at running back, exited with a bum knee. If it took a dumb play, Tampa Bay could handle it, like linebacker Broderick Thomas reacting to a mid-fourth-period interference call against - you guessed it, Marty Carter - by childishly picking up an official's flag and heaving it. Ah, calm under fire.

In the 7 1/2 minutes that followed Tampa Bay's 31-3 glee, the Falcons went on an unimpeded 21-0 spree. By the time the Bucs' runaway shrank to 31-24, there was still a Tampa Bay-terrorizing 9:37 on the dome ticker. You expected the usual. Tombstone territory? "You can't give life to a team like Atlanta, which has a lot of weapons," said Floyd Peters, the Bucs' defensive coordinator. "Everybody (from Tampa Bay) made a lot of positive plays, but each guy also had his share of boneheaded plays that nearly got us beat. We should grow from this, handling it better next time."

In the end, this one would be different. Even with mega-backsliding, the attitude wasn't the old hands-clasped-on-the-head surrender mode. "A year ago, there might've been a `here we go again' attitude," coach Sam Wyche said. "This time, nobody thought about giving in. When Atlanta was driving in search of a tying touchdown, our players were talking about how - if it happened - we'd win in overtime."

Tampa Bay would use sweat, guts and luck to keep Atlanta from getting to 31-all. "We refused to play it soft," Carter said. "We were blitzing, trying to put heat on (quarterback Bobby) Hebert. Everybody kept saying `don't let down.' "

Atlanta receiver Mike Haynes zipped past Martin Mayhew, but Tampa Bay got lucky when Hebert underthrew and the Bucs' cornerback almost intercepted. Tampa Bay fortune was teetering. A half-empty dome became semi-loud. Hebert fired to Haynes in the end zone. But just when it seemed to be an equalizing touchdown, Mayhew slapped the football loose. Haynes swore it was a legal catch. "Nah, he didn't get both feet down," countered the Bucs' defender. Skill? Luck? It was both.

Tampa Bay, after coming so close to mucking a 31-3 lead, needed further strokes of fortune. Hebert had been knocked semi-cuckoo by Bucs rushers. He was operating on instincts. But when Mike Pritchard flashed open in the rear of the end zone, the Falcons' passer sent a well-aimed missile. Pritchard might've gotten the killer TD, but Carter smashed into the Atlanta receiver from behind. Spectators screamed for a penalty. Pritchard pleaded. Carter checked the end-zone turf to see if a flag had fallen. "I think I arrived at the same time as the ball," Carter said. "I knocked it loose, but that kind of play can be called either way. Thank heaven the refs saw it my way."

When you're the Bucs, who came to Atlanta with a pitiful 2-20 run in 1991-93 road games, any win is mighty. Especially away from Tampa Stadium. For Wyche, who grew up in this big Georgia burg, it was doubly so. Dad Wyche was here, and also mom. Brother Bubba. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Daughter with new boyfriend. Old pals. For a 2-5 coach, Sam was feeling heroically high.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1993