Someday, a loss might hurt enough
Perhaps someday, this will feel worse than this. Perhaps someday, when (if) the Tampa Bay Buccaneers grow up into a football team, there will come another day when the heavens conspire to give them a football game and they will refuse to take it. Perhaps then, there will be anger and disbelief, and players will throw helmets and shed tears and kick lockers. Perhaps someday, a 23-21 loss to New Orleans will rip the heart out of the Bucs instead of lifting it.

A football team with teeth - the Saints, for instance - would have walked off the Superdome field snarling if it had lost the way Tampa Bay lost Sunday. Here it was, on the verge of upsetting one of the NFL's better teams, and the game slipped out of the Bucs' hands and fell harmlessly to the turf. The Bucs? It was all they could do to keep from thumping their chests.

More than anything, more than their record (3-5), more than their losing streak (four games), this represents the current state of the Tampa Bay Bucs. Yippee. They lost close. "They're better than we are," said Sam Wyche. "Crud, I'm not stupid. But on this given day, as they say, our guys had a chance to win this ballgame."

Sunday, that seemed to be good enough. If you have seen the Bucs in recent weeks, you can understand. Hold this game up against Detroit (Lions 38-7) and Chicago (Bears 31-14), and it looks like a keeper. "At least this time," said defensive coordinator Floyd Peters, "we fought."

For the legit teams of the NFL, that wouldn't seem like much to ask for. But these are the Bucs, who still can tell a good week from a bad one by the margin of defeat. For the Bucs, two points shy is still better than most of the alternatives. Someday, their players will sit at their lockers and realize the chances that slipped away. They will look at Quinn Early, who dropped one touchdown pass and had another called back by a penalty, and realize that he should have been the goat. They will realize they dodged bullets when the Saints dropped interceptions, and passes, when they missed a field goal. They will realize that while they indeed fought back, it was difficult at times to tell if the Saints were friend or foe.

Someday, perhaps the Bucs will not have to talk about how different it was as they sprang to life in the last 20 minutes of playing time. Perhaps they will not be manhandled for the first 40, when they were outgained 257-34. Perhaps someday, they will not enter the locker room as one long line of suspects. There was Courtney Hawkins, the rookie wide receiver, who dropped a fourth-down pass - and with it the Bucs' last chance - with 40 seconds to go. "My team was fighting all the way down to the wire," he said, "and I had a chance to keep the fight going and didn't."

There was Darrell Fullington, the safety, whose roughness penalty on Eric Martin set up the Saints for their winning field goal. Martin clearly was stopped when Fullington delivered a blow to the head. Fullington said he thought Martin was going to spin away, but that doesn't explain a shot to the head, does it?

There was Ron Hall, a tight end who was called for offensive pass interference that killed the Bucs' next-to-last drive. In fairness to Hall, it was a phantom call that no one else saw. "I was p-----," Hall said. "I don't remember any contact at all once we were downfield." There was the confusion that led There was the confusion that led to two wasted timeouts in the fourth period. The first of those came, Peters said, when the Bucs were trying to line up in a defense they had used "15 or 20" times during the game. The second came when DeBerg called a wrong formation. In the final two minutes, that could have translated into another three or four plays.

Someday, maybe those mistakes, and this defeat, will eat at Tampa Bay players like acid dripping into their heart. Someday, when their record improves, perhaps their standards will do the same. In the meantime, they aren't really climbing. But when you are falling toward earth, any reduction of speed is welcome.

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1992