Bucs' upset bid falls short
Pity the poor Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For nearly three quarters Sunday, they deserved to have been blown out, thrown out and droned out of the Superdome by New Orleans on what really was an All Saints' Day. So it was particularly stunning for the Bucs, after finally taking the lead, to wind up being a Maxwell House coffee ad come to life. You know, good to the last drop.

Rookie receiver Courtney Hawkins butterfingered away a fourth-down pass with 44 seconds left in the game from Steve DeBerg that would have given Tampa Bay new life at midfield and instead sealed the Bucs' 23-21 loss to the Saints. But while Hawkins' drop officially killed the Bucs' comeback hopes, it was an anemic first-half offense and a late-hit penalty by safety Darrell Fullington that led to Morten Anderson's 50-yard, game-winning field goal with 9:14 to play.

The victory moved New Orleans (6-2) into a first-place tie in the NFC West with San Francisco, while the Bucs, losers of four in a row, fell to 3-5. "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. There were a couple of key plays in the game, that if the play had gone our way "

Hawkins' drop of a pass that would have given the Bucs a first down at midfield with no timeouts and 44 seconds left was one. Nobody felt worse after the game than the second-round pick from Michigan State. "It was a pass quick to the flats, and Steve put it on me," Hawkins said in almost a whisper. "I should've come up with the catch. My team was fighting, all the way down to the wire, and I had a chance to keep the fight going and didn't."

But in the end, the biggest blunder was Fullington's hit out of bounds on receiver Eric Martin that cost Tampa Bay 15 yards and enabled Anderson to stay within range of his game-winning kick. For most of Sunday afternoon, the Bucs looked as if they would be the victims of another blowout. They trailed 20-7 late in the third quarter and had been dominated completely by the Saints' suffocating defense, which sacked DeBerg three times and whacked him on nearly every throw.

Until a fumble by New Orleans running back Vaughn Dunbar was recovered by linebacker Broderick Thomas with 4:19 remaining in the third quarter, Tampa Bay had gained only 34 total yards to the Saints' 257. So ineffective was the Bucs' offense in the first half that it managed one first down and 15 yards in 15 plays while only holding the ball for 8:37. "They've got a devastating defense," Wyche said. "We were powerless. I mean, there were times in there when we just could not hold our own, much less move the ball. When you play a team that's really cleaning you up in the first half, which we suffered through, our goal was to see if we could be in the game when the fourth quarter began."

Dunbar's fumble somehow turned the game around for Tampa Bay. DeBerg, who was making his first start of the season in place of Vinny Testaverde, drove the Bucs 37 yards in seven plays, hitting wideout Willie Drewrey for a 4-yard touchdown pass on fourth and 1.

But the Saints weren't through trying to give the game away. On their next play, quarterback Bobby Hebert was pressured by Ray Seals and intercepted by safety Marty Carter, who returned the ball to the New Orleans 34. Eight plays later, running back Reggie Cobb scored on a 4-yard run to give the Bucs a 21-20 lead. According to Wyche, the Bucs revamped a major part of their game plan by moving the pocket for DeBerg and leaving a tight end in the backfield to pick up blitzing linebackers. "We did some major reworking of our offense, and it showed up in the second half," Wyche said. "Moving the pocket, we put the tight end in the backfield, we changed the blocking scheme. It was major. We virtually wrote a new one in the second half. I wish we would've thunked it up on Wednesday."

The Saints did all they could to make it interesting. In addition to Hebert throwing three interceptions, two of which were nabbed by Thomas, New Orleans had one touchdown pass called back because of a holding penalty, another touchdown pass dropped in the end zone by Quinn Early and a missed 39-yard field-goal attempt by Anderson. In fact, Thomas had a monster game, returning one interception 56 yards for a touchdown and recovering a fumble. But Saints coach Jim Mora did not consider his team lucky to win. "What luck?" he said. "Let me tell you something. Good teams are lucky. You ever see a bad team that's lucky? I haven't. In my entire career, I have never seen a bad team that was lucky. Good teams are lucky. I want the other team saying, `Those guys were lucky' every week. Because that's what losers say."

Not even DeBerg, the 38-year-old veteran, could stop the bleeding of a four-game losing streak. He finished the game with modest numbers: 13-of-25 passing for 94 yards with one touchdown and one interception. DeBerg knew going into the game that Wyche couldn't have picked a tougher assignment than to start him at New Orleans. "We kind of had some laughs over that during the week," DeBerg said. "Because it's the toughest defense of the year, the two starting receivers are hurt all that stuff."

As Wyche stood answering the final questions in his post-game news conference, he said he was obviously disappointed by the loss, but not by his football team. "Winning is the object of the game, but playing and walking off the field with a statement of pride and feeling good about ourselves is important," Wyche said. "I don't want to sound like someone else, but we're slowly inching up. It's climbing, and the vines are tearing loose when we do it."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1992