Bucs left grasping for air
One thing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't have to do Sunday was change the game plan after they fell behind. They played as if they were desperate all day, even when they were ahead. Steve DeBerg dropped back to pass time and time again - 41 (37 tosses, 4 sacks) in 50 snaps - because the Bucs weren't running the ball well and decided not to try. It didn't work too well. The Bucs made only three first downs in the second half and lost to the Minnesota Vikings 23-17.

The Vikings (5-4 overall, 5-1 not counting the strike replacement games) took second place in the NFC Central with the victory. The Bucs dropped into third at 4-5 overall, 2-4 with the regular team. Tampa Bay plays at home against San Francisco next Sunday. ``We might not run it again all year,`` head coach Ray Perkins said after the Bucs ground out 15 yards on their nine carries.

t wasn't a team record for fewest yards, but Tampa Bay had never before run fewer than 14 times in a game. James Wilder, once one of the NFL's foremost workhorses, had no carries in the game. His one attempt was nullified by a penalty. ``We're going to do what we do best, and that's throw,`` Perkins continued. ``So somebody better learn how to pass-block.``

DeBerg was sacked four times and fumbled twice, leading to 10 of Minnesota's points. The Bucs also lost a touchdown on one of their few rushing attempts, when Jeff Smith fumbled on a first-down play inches from the Minnesota goal line. Still, amazingly enough, the Bucs held on by their fingernails until the final five minutes. Then they were taken out of the game by their fourth turnover and an officially acknowledged bad call by the game officials.

Trailing by six, the Bucs had a first down at the Minnesota 37. DeBerg threw 12 yards downfield to Gerald Carter, but Minnesota cornerback Wymon Henderson stepped in and intercepted. ``I saw him,`` DeBerg said of Henderson. ``And I didn't think he could make that play.`` DeBerg also led Carter slightly too much, but said the ball was ``very close`` to where he intended to throw it.

Henderson returned the ball 17 yards, but fumbled just before he hit the ground. Offensive tackle Ron Heller recovered, and the Bucs might have held on to the window-ledge a little longer. But the officials ruled there wasn't a fumble. After the replay official in the press box overruled them, the officials on the field said the Bucs' recovery couldn't be allowed because the play had been whistled dead.

``We thought on the field that the ball came out upon (Henderson's) contact with the ground, which would have made it nothing,`` referee Fred Wyant explained, according to a transcript of his interview with a league-designated pool reporter. "The instant-replay guy said that it was a fumble, and consequently because it was a fumble and we killed the ball, then it goes to the team that had it last. Which was Tampa, excuse me, was Minnesota. That's all there is to it.``

So Wyant was saying, effectively, that his crew blew the whistle on a live ball because they didn't realize it was a live ball. ``That's a hose job,`` said Heller, who thought it had been a simple no-fumble call until reporters filled him in. ``I don't know. Maybe they did blow the whistle. I didn't hear it.``

When Perkins was asked what he thought of it, he said: ``You don't want to hear me say it. You don't really want to know.`` Perkins did comment generally about the officials: ``I didn't think they had a real good day.``

Minnesota proceeded to run out the clock, killing off 4:42 by making three first downs. The wonder was that any of this mattered, considering the Vikings ran 77 plays to Tampa Bay's 50 and turned the ball over only once compared to Tampa Bay's four. Minnesota also gained 224 yards on the ground, its highest total since 1976, and the 224-15 differential (minus 209) was a Buccaneers team record.

Tampa Bay started the day with a long drive that included another controversial call. Carter was ruled down inches from the goal line on a 17-yard pass play from DeBerg. Carter said he thought he scored, but conceded that ``the official had a better view of it. I thought I came down right across the line. He spotted it right on the line. It was real close.``

Smith fumbled on the next play when hit by strong safety Joey Browner, and outside linebacker Chris Martin recovered. Later in the quarter, Minnesota blew its own easy scoring chance when Chuck Nelson's 21-yard field goal attempt hit the right upright. Right after that, the Bucs took the lead on a 20-yard touchdown pass from DeBerg to tight end Calvin Magee. That capped an 80-yard drive.

Two Nelson field goals, one of them set up by one of DeBerg's fumbles, made it 7-6 at the half. Then, for the third time in the last four weeks, the Bucs' opponent benched its starting quarterback. Tommy Kramer relieved Wade Wilson. ``The team wasn't moving the ball at all, and I've said many times the only way you can change the chemistry on the field is to change the QB,`` said Vikings head coach Jerry Burns. ``You don't change the guard or the tackle or the tight end.``

Minnesota dominated the third quarter, holding the Bucs without a first down while racking up eight of its own. The Vikings took the lead with a 74-yard drive on the first series, with rookie Rick Fenney scoring on a 1-yard run. The touchdown was set up by a 25-yard penalty, when cornerback Rod Jones was called for pass interference in the end zone.

On the next Minnesota series, Bucs rookie free safety Ray Isom, playing his first professional game, kept Tampa Bay close by intercepting Kramer and returning the ball 29 yards to the Vikings' 14-yard line. Two great defensive plays, one by Browner and one by cornerback Carl Lee, robbed Carter of touchdown catches on that series. Then Donald Igwebuike kicked a 26-yard field goal to make it 13-10.

Minnesota matched that field goal, and pulled away early in the fourth quarter after DeBerg's second fumble gave the Vikings a first down on the Buccaneers' 8. Kramer threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Steve Jordan to make it 23-10. But Tampa Bay crawled back into it when Phil Freeman got behind cornerback Wayne Smith and hauled in a 64-yard touchdown pass with 7:55 to go. The ball was underthrown and Smith got a hand on it, but tapped it ahead to Freeman.

Then came the instant replay follies. ``I don't really care what they ruled,`` Perkins said. ``I know what I saw.``

John Luttermoser, The St.Petersburg Times 16 November 1987