Big Uneasy
At this stage of the season, there is one perfectly good explanation why the Bucs refuse to point fingers. They know they would run out of them. It would take 11 just to indict the offense.

And what, pray tell, would be left to single out the errant placekicker? Or the blown call by the referee? Or the NFL for not allowing the Bucs to play all their games at home? They were all at fault for Tampa Bay's 9-3 loss to the Saints on Sunday at the Superdome.

Michael Husted missed two tying field goals and the offense was victimized by seven dropped passes, a fumble and two interceptions while failing to score a touchdown for the second time this season. It was the fourth straight loss by the Bucs (3-4) on the road this season and dropped them into a third-place tie in the NFC Central with Chicago. More daunting is the fact that Tampa Bay hosts the unbeaten Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

"It's frustrating," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "This team was built on not beating itself, playing great defense, running the ball and the play-action pass. For some reason, we're just not doing it. I'm just as baffled as anybody outside looking in, and I'm inside looking out. It's killing me right now. But we're about to find out what kind of team we've got. Hey, the next nine weeks, we've got to play like one game and we're out. And there are some tough ballclubs we've got to play, so we've got to suck it up."

On Sunday, the Bucs simply stunk it up. Let us count the ways. The Bucs had the ball three times inside the Saints' 25 and came away with zero points.

After a 55-yard punt return by Jacquez Green, tight end Patrick Hape fumbled at the 3 on the opening drive, ending the Bucs' best chance to score an offensive touchdown in the first half for the first time this season. The Bucs dropped seven passes, including Green's whiff of a potential winning touchdown that went through his hands at the New Orleans 25 with just over five minutes left. Husted missed tying field goals of 32 and 48 yards wide left.

Finally, the Bucs were unable to sustain a running game. They were held to 58 yards rushing, forcing quarterback Trent Dilfer to attempt 44 passes - the second-most of his career. All this ineffectiveness came against a team that had allowed at least 30 points in each of its past three games. But the Bucs managed to make it look like coach Mike Ditka's '85 Chicago Bears. "It's time to push the panic button," Bucs running back Warrick Dunn said. "We're 3-4 and we lost four tough games. It's rough. It's definitely time for guys to wake up. We all need to wake up and play better and play harder."

The Bucs also did not get any help from the refs. With Tampa Bay trailing 6-3 in the third quarter, receiver Bert Emanuel appeared to make a diving catch in the end zone of a 14-yard pass from Dilfer. But officials said he trapped the ball and ruled it incomplete. Replays were inconclusive. "I caught it. It's as simple as that," Emanuel said. "Trent put it in a good spot and I had my hands underneath the ball. The TV replay showed that. I have no idea why he called it incomplete. It was frustrating at that point because I think it would've changed the complexion of the game. But I don't think one call can lose a game."

To compound matters, referee Johnny Grier announced they were picking up the flag for defensive holding on the same play. The penalty would have given the Bucs an automatic first down. "(The call on Emanuel was) a judgment call and you can live with the official's judgment. Obviously, we saw the replay and thought it was a catch," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "But what's hard for me to understand is throwing a flag and then picking it back up. Either contact is made downfield for a penalty or it's not. I just asked him why he picked up the flag and he said there was contact but he thought the ball was thrown. I asked, 'Well, if the ball was thrown, why did you throw the flag?' It was a disappointing explanation."

It was not a day for answers for the Bucs. Green, the explosive rookie from Florida, had no suitable explanation for his drop of a long pass from Dilfer at the Saints' 25 - a play that likely would have resulted in the winning TD. "I tried to run with the football before I caught it," Green said. "I took my eyes off of it at the last second to look at the safety."

Dilfer also wasn't blameless. He completed 20 of 44 passes for 186 yards. Both his interceptions came when he was hit trying to throw under a heavy pass rush. "We all could've played better," Dungy said. "He had some balls that should've been touchdown catches and we don't get them. We drop them or they call them incomplete. That's tough to overcome sometimes. We've all got to play better on offense to get the ball in the end zone. In a game like this when it is so tight, sometimes one play can turn it around. We need the catch at the right time. We need the run at the right time. We just weren't able to get it."

Sure, the Bucs defense could have played better. But in the NFL, when you do not allow a touchdown, you should win. The loss put the Bucs' playoff aspirations in serious jeopardy. In fact, they seemed finally to come to grips with the fact that they are just not very good on offense. "We talked about it as a team, that this would be a crucial game in our season, that there was a lot at stake," safety John Lynch said. "We have no one to blame but ourselves. We just played bad football."

Emanuel, who left Atlanta to sign with the Bucs as a free agent, has the misfortune to realize that his former team has a better record (5-2) than his new one. "I think everybody's expectations on this team was a lot higher than 3-4 at this point," Emanuel said. "It's a little bit of a shock."

Guard Frank Middleton had no difficulty pointing out the obvious cause of the poor record. "Our defense is playing great," Middleton said. "All 11 of those guys should be in the Pro Bowl and our offense is playing like everybody is a free agent. We've got to make up the difference on offense, man. Our offense is not there."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1998