Bucs vow honeymoon is not over
In a vow-vow-voom halftime show, 172 couples of all ages and sizes and description came in a mass wedding march to Tampa Stadium's football grass. I'm not joking.

Sunday brought a sunny, blue-sky, perfect-in-many-ways afternoon. To conclude a Bucs halftime promotion of rare emotion, brides and grooms would unite in an "I do" chorus. Many happy returns. Except for the Bucs.

Following the ceremony, on a bed of leftover rice, the Tampa Bay offensive unit, with a hopeful 66,135 pleading in the pews, would leave an overworked Bucs defense at the fourth-quarter altar. "I feel for our defense," Tampa Bay quarterback Trent Dilfer said. "They had a tough assignment against Atlanta's strong passing game, but our offense could've and should've rescued our defense."

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, a promising Bucs drive fell apart faster than a Zsa Zsa Gabor marriage. Just when the Tampa Bay offense seemed primed for a rare rescue of its defense, there arose an ugly annulment. Bucs clicked, then clanked.

On the final three plays of the third period, Dilfer brought Sunday's cheering Tampa Stadium multitude to its stomping feet. He passed to Jackie Harris for 15 yards and then 27 more, followed by a rocket to Courtney Hawkins to gain 13 to the Atlanta 40-yard line. Then the quarter ended.

Somebody unplugged the Bucs. During the break, while TV went to commercials, Tampa Bay head coach Sam Wyche ranted at zebras. He probably had a case, as Sunday's officials seemed to multiply err. But it was a 21-21 game, and the Bucs seemed slow to get to the business of designing further offensive bombast. They were about to splinter.

Instead of taking over the game, Tampa Bay's offense surrendered not once but at least twice. To boot, Michael Husted, a game-winning hero the past two Sundays, blew a go-ahead field goal. One last muff coming . . .

As the game ebbed into its final minutes, with the Bucs in a do-or-lose offensive quandary, Dilfer misfired on four consecutive throws against the NFL's lowest-rated pass defense. Atlanta's win was assured. There would be no bailing out of a Bucs defense that had been uncharacteristically slapped around by Jeff George's scrambling, deadly deep passing game.

So now it's NFL midterm. True, the Tampa Bay offense improved in creating running room for Errict Rhett, allowing the gritty tailback to gain 88 yards. But when it counted most, the Falcons slammed the door. Rhett was stonewalled.

True, the Bucs twice went sailing down the field, to tie Atlanta at 14 and then at 21. But when it came to the final examinations, at 21-21 and then one last time with Atlanta ahead 24-21, the Tampa Bay offense badly flunked the quizzes. Dilfer was right.

For once, the Bucs' defense couldn't handle the major share of the burden. Personnel in the secondary became thin and often overmatched. But the Tampa Bay offense owed its defense. Dilfer did make some strong throws. Rhett did have some terrific runs. But when the fourth-quarter gun aimed at its head, the Bucs' offense would twice meekly surrender. Strain for the marriage?

"At 5-3, you've got to be a little happy, considering Bucs records of the recent past," said 29-year-old Tampa Bay linebacker Hardy Nickerson. "But we've barely scratched our possibilities. When our offense gets in step, this is going to be a dynamite football team."

Nickerson had been fair to the entire Buccaneers family. There was no nastiness in his tone, only hope and support. Dilfer suspects there is far more hurt in the Bucs' defensive heart than Hardy would admit. "They can't say it; won't say it," the 23-year-old QB suggested. "They're too classy to say it. Back in college (Fresno State), my defense never rescued our offense in four years. I know the feeling our defense is going through. We've got to do better by them, beginning next week in Houston. Got to start winning again. A 6-3 record would sound so much better than 5-4."

Six-and-two went up in smoke.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1995