The Great Bumpkins
He has tossed out any talk of the Buccaneers making the playoffs. No more post-game pitches about how this is a good football team. He's sorry his quarterbacks aren't more accurate, but glad the fans who aimed at his head after the game were off-target. But even after Sunday's 36-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, there's one thing Sam Wyche isn't ready to throw in - the towel. "I've used all the motivational talk," said Wyche. "I haven't got any left."

The Bucs' offense committed five turnovers, leading to 20 Vikings points and helping the Bucs fall behind early for the third straight game. The loss dropped the Bucs to 2-6 and four games behind NFC Central leader Minnesota (6-2), which could've made the beating much worse had it not settled for five field goals by Fuad Reveiz.

Things got so bad by game's end that fans behind the Bucs' bench began mocking Wyche. Several hurled debris - including a pair of binoculars - at him and starting quarterback Craig Erickson as the two beat a hasty retreat from the field. "I almost got hit by a bunch of stuff there," said Wyche. "That was the first time I've ever had that happen to me. That's not a good sign," said Wyche. "The good news is we really didn't have anybody with very good aim."

Unfortunately, the same could be said for the Bucs' quarterbacks. Erickson completed 10 of 18 passes for 129 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions before giving way to Trent Dilfer. The Bucs' rookie quarterback didn't fare much better, throwing an interception and coughing up a fumble on a sack by Henry Thomas.

Dilfer finished the game 7-of-13 for 75 yards and provided the only light moment of the day for the Bucs when he high-fived surprised head linesman Dave Anderson after throwing a 3-yard touchdown to Courtney Hawkins. "It was sarcasm," Dilfer said. "I was just trying to be funny."

Not funny is the hole the Bucs have dug for themselves the past three weeks. Tampa Bay has been outscored 75-0 during that stretch before the offense could get in gear. The Bucs were down 24-0 at Atlanta, 34-0 last week at San Francisco and 17-0 Sunday against the Vikings. "If somebody had told me we'd be out of the playoff picture at the midway point of the season, I'd have told them they're crazy," said Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson. "I probably would've started a fight."

The Bucs' defense, which had fallen from sixth to 24th in the NFL entering Sunday's game, knew it could have a long day against the Vikings and quarterback Warren Moon. Playing without injured safety Thomas Everett, the Bucs yielded 361 total yards - including 113 yards rushing by tailback Terry Allen. Nickerson said the Bucs' defense is not being helped by an offense that is next to last in the league in scoring and averaging fewer than two touchdowns a game. "Defensively, we're the cowbell right now," he said. "We have to carry the load. Things get tougher if we're not able to stop anyone. We've got to be able to go out there and know that the load is on us."

The Bucs spotted the Vikings a 17-0 lead before Moon had a chance to warm up. Everybody had a hand in the bloodletting. Erickson threw an interception that was returned 41 yards for a touchdown by Vikings defensive back Anthony Parker. The pass was intended for Courtney Hawkins, who zigged when Erickson thought he would zag.

On defense, the Bucs couldn't stop tailback Allen, whose cutback running produced a 37-yard touchdown that saw three Tampa Bay defenders - Marty Carter, Tony Covington and Santana Dotson - get more than a glove on him. Finally, the doldrums spread to normally reliable placekicker Michael Husted, who had been perfect on all eight of his attempts inside the 50-yard line this season entering Sunday's game. But Husted missed wide right on field-goal attempts of 48 and 44 yards, denying the Bucs a chance to get into the ballgame early.

The Bucs' only bright moment came when Erickson used the hurry-up offense to catch the Vikings with 12 men on the field, then heaved a 62-yard touchdown pass to Charles Wilson. If not for the Vikings stopping themselves, they could've put the game completely out of reach by halftime. But Moon threw behind a wide-open Adrian Cooper in the end zone, and Qadry Ismail had another possible TD skip just off his outstretched fingertips.

That forced the Vikings to summon Reveiz for field goals of 21 and 48 yards to send Tampa Bay to the locker room trailing 23-7. Erickson played his way out of the ballgame early in the third quarter. On the Bucs' second possession of the half, Erickson tried to go deep to Wilson again, but the ball hung and was intercepted by Vikings safety Vencie Glenn, who returned it 32 yards to the Tampa Bay 37.

Moon needed just five plays to reach the end zone from there, hitting former Florida State star Amp Lee with an 8-yard TD pass. Enter Dilfer, who had suffered through a miserable day in his first start last week at San Francisco. In his first two tries Sunday, he fumbled and threw an interception. "Maybe people have become numb to it because it's happened for so long," Dilfer said. "But I'm not numb to it. It hurts like hell. It's disappointing going in there knowing things aren't going right. The starter isn't playing well."

Whether the Bucs will continue to play roulette with their quarterbacks is uncertain. Wyche declined to name a starter for next Sunday's game against Chicago. Wyche was unusually subdued in his post-game address Sunday and excused the Bucs fans - even those arrested for hurling objects at him - for their behavior. "Nobody's more disappointed than I am," Wyche said. "Nobody's more disappointed than the players and myself. We work awfully hard at this. It's not something we take lightly... I can understand that frustration. I don't begrudge that. I wish I hadn't put them in the position to where they'd have to react that way. So I'm going to have to make sure I can quicken my two-step so I can dodge some of those things."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1994