The masters of fourth-quarter disasters self-destructed Sunday in a manner even they could not have believed was possible. The Bucs not only blew a seemingly safe lead for the third straight week, they allowed the largest fourth-quarter comeback in the 68-year history of the National Football League. The inability to put the game away cost the Bucs their second victory in three weeks. The St. Louis Cardinals rallied with four touchdowns in the final 12:42 to defeat the Bucs 31-28 at Busch Stadium.
Amazingly, the Bucs still had a chance to tie the game at the final gun. But Donald Igwebuike's 53-yard field goal attempt hit the crossbar, and 22,449 in the stands jumped on their feet and whooped it up. "Right now, I'm not in the mood for saying this team has to grow up and learn from these things," said quarterback Steve DeBerg, who led the Bucs from their 8-yard line to the St. Louis 35 in the final two minutes. "I'm grown up. I don't want to wait 'til next year."
DeBerg, 33, might have to now, because Sunday's loss dropped the Bucs to 4-4 and may have dealt a severe blow to whatever playoff chances they might have had. That is, of course, if you ever really believed postseason play was a possibility for the Bucs. "The hell with a playoff spot," Coach Ray Perkins said afterward. "That's what I think about that. Just like I told our players after the game. They were listening to a bunch of writers that don't know what the hell is going on anyway as far as the playoffs."
Two weeks ago, the Bucs squandered a 12-point fourth-quarter lead and lost 27-26 to the Chicago Bears. A week ago Sunday, the Bucs built a 17-point fourth-quarter lead against Green Bay, then held on to win 23-17. The 3-5 Cardinals, naturally, looked at Sunday's result differently. "This win showed a lot of character," said Coach Gene Stallings. "Our players never gave up, even when some bad things were happening." A 14-point third quarter extended the Bucs 14-3 halftime lead to 28-3. The way they had been playing, the Cardinals did not appear capable of coming back. "I thought we had the thing in the bag heading into the fourth quarter," said guard Rick Mallory.
That optimism was based on the fact that the Bucs had taken the second-half kickoff and moved 80 yards in 12 plays to a touchdown that came on a 34-yard down-the-middle from DeBerg to halfback Jeff Smith. "It was a perfect play," said DeBerg. "It was an audible we had designed for the all-out blitz." The Bucs also scored on their second possession, driving 75 yards in 12 plays. Tampa Bay converted three times on third down, and Smith scored from the 3 to make it 28-3 with 1:51 left in the period. DeBerg was sold. "There was no way I thought they were going to come back and make a game of it," he said. "Let alone win it."
The it began, a Big Red assault that would not stop. The Cardinals converted twice on fourth down - the big play being a 39-yard pass from quarterback Neil Lomax to Stump Mitchell on fourth-and-two - and tight end Robert Awalt scored on a 4-yard pass. It was 28-10 with 12:42 left. After the kickoff, on second down at the Bucs' 22, James Wilder lost the ball, linebacker Niko Noga scooped it up at the 23, and returned it for a stunning touchdown that made it 28-17 with 11:39 remaining. "That was the key play," said Noga. "We were pretty well out of the game at that point, but that picked us up."
If the Bucs were not shocked at that development, they would be on the next Cardinals series which began at the St. Louis 39 following a 37-yard Frank Garcia punt and 8-yard Vai Sikahema return. After being set back 10 yards by a holding penalty, the Cards scored in five plays. Included were four straight Lomax completions, the final one for 11 yards to J.T. Smith for the TD. There was 8:18 remaining and the Bucs led 28-24. The Bucs started at their 15 after the kickoff, got as far as the Cardinals' 47, and gave St. Louis the ball at its 20 when Garcia punted into the end zone. Eight plays and 80 yards later, the Cardinals led for the first time. The key plays were receptions of 27 yards by Awalt and 23 yards by wide receiver Don Holmes. The touchdown of 17 yards to Smith came on third-and-6 with 2:01 remaining. It was a dramatic turnaround from the early part of the game. The Cardinals were not forced to punt on their first four possessions, but all they got out of 208 yards worth of offense was a 31-yard Jim Gallery field goal with 20 seconds left in the first half.
Gallery had missed from 39 yards on the Cardinals' first possession, in which they moved 73 yards in 14 plays only to have a low snap that handcuffed holder Cliff Stoudt ruin the drive. A diving interception by cornerback Rod Jones at the Tampa Bay 42 ended the third St. Louis possession. Jones caught the ball inches off the ground after it glanced off the hands of fullback Earl Farrell. Another turnover - a fumble recovery at the Bucs' 7-yard line by inside linebacker Ervin Randle - stopped the Cards after they had moved 63 yards in nine plays. Randle recovered when Lomax's pitchout slipped through the hands of Mitchell. Gallery's 31-yarder, which made the score 14-3, ended the Cardinals" scoring frustration. They could have - should have - had more than three points, but rookie outside linebacker Winston Moss sacked Lomax for a 9-yard loss to the 14 on third-and-goal. It was the first NFL sack for Moss.
The Bucs had the ball for 15 fewer plays than the Cardinals in the first half, but they made the best of it by scoring two touchdowns. Jones' interception and 9-yard return set up a six-play, 49-yard drive that ended when DeBerg passed 5 yards to wide receiver Mark Carrier. The big gain along the way was a play that worked whenever the Bucs tried it: DeBerg to Wilder in the left flat. This one went 32 yards, and five more were added when cornerback Leonard Smith grabbed Wilder's face mask.
The second touchdown drive, a product of Randle's fumble recovery at the 7, was the Bucs" longest of the season. It covered 92 yards. The 16th and final play was a 3-yard pass from DeBerg to wide receiver Gerald Carter, who had gotten the Bucs out of an early hold with a 25-yard reception on third-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 7. It may have looked good, but Perkins was not pleased. "We stunk the place out in a lot of areas," said Perkins. The aroma in the fourth quarter would become unbearable.
Jim Selman The Tampa Tribune November 1987