Bucs' season fading away in Red Zone
It's time for the Bucs to change. Forget the NFL. Jump to Arena Football. On another sorry Sunday, their offense was perfect for a 50-yard field, between the 25s. But the "Red Zone?" It's their dead zone. A place where Tampa Bay drives go to die. One of a mad multitude of reasons why a 10th consecutive Buccaneers season is deep into rot.

"It would be easier to stomach if the Minnesota Vikings had stopped us with great defensive stands," said Bucs center Tony Mayberry, "but we kept causing our own downfalls, due to mental breakdowns. When you're marching well and get inside an opponent's 20-yard line - into the Red Zone - that's where an offense should turn up the heat another notch. Instead, we're backing off."

Finding ways to lose . . . Tampa Bay outgained Minnesota 354-296 but was outscored 35-7. In their two latest Tampa Stadium efforts, the home team has been cumulatively creamed 73-14 by Detroit and the Vikes. This week, let's pick on offense.

Inside the Red Zone, the Bucs' offensive line tends to disintegrate. "Mental breakdowns," as 285-pounder Mayberry said. Yellow flags fall, and holding penalties arise. Receivers who were so adept at midfield suddenly muff passes. Quarterbacks change and make shaky decisions. Tampa Bay keeps stalling and settling for field-goal attempts, and placekicker Ken Willis frequently flubs. There's more blame, of course.

Bucs defensive linemen were pushed around like chess pawns in the first half, as Minnesota stacked a 28-0 lead. Vikings defenders kept scoring points, making touchdowns on a fumble runback by Carlos Jenkins and an interception return by Chris Doleman, while Tampa Bay counterparts gored nobody until the game was out of reach. Here we go again . . .

Coaches come and go, so too Bucs players, but the Tampa Stadium sadness remains like some incurable disease. Since 1983, the House of Culverhouse's season-by-season loss totals have been 14, 10, 14, 14, 11, 11, 11, 10 and 13. They're into another 0-5 slide. Hey, Buccos, is there any reason to expect your 3-1 beginning in 1992 won't become just another ugly 6-10 or 5-11 record? What do you, the orange-uniformed perpetrators, say to Tampa Stadium patrons who buy expensive tickets and constantly are disappointed and wind up booing the home team?

"It's very frustrating, for us and our fans," said Mayberry, a well-spoken old Wake Forest Demon Deacon. "We're not quitters in here," he continued, sitting on a locker-room stool with head held low among a collection of big, quiet, unhappy Tampa Bay men. "Whether people want to believe it or not, there is significant promise. There's ample talent on our team, plus an absolute desire to win. We want it badly. I truly think it's going to happen, but it won't be until we seriously cut into our mental errors. I do feel bad for our fans. They deserve more. We're going to give them more, eventually."

One of the Bucs' traditions - which are predominantly bad - is getting seasons off to promising beginnings and then souring like aging milk. September's sweetness keeps evolving into November's nausea. It's happening again.

In 1987, Tampa Bay had a 4-3 record but then blundered to 4-11. In 1989, a 3-2 went pitifully downhill, becoming a 5-11. Two years ago, there was a 4-2 start, and a 6-10 finish. Sam Wyche signed on as Bucs coach this year, with promises it was going to be different. Still, his 3-1 of September has become his 3-6 of November. Same song, new verse. Okay, the fantasy is over. There'll be no stunning Buccaneers rise from a 1991 coma to the 1992 playoffs, which is precisely what the Vikings are accomplishing. There'll be no winning Tampa Bay record again. So, with seven Sundays left on the '92 docket, what goals can Sam's troupe possibly have?

For one thing, they can drill till they drop on cutting down the mental breakdowns of which Mayberry so accurately spoke. For another, they can give Vinny Testaverde one last chance to prove he should or shouldn't be Tampa Bay's quarterback of the future. Then, if Testaverde writes his own pink slip, Wyche can devote December to the QB schooling of Craig Erickson. Odd things keep occurring at Tampa Stadium. This is the 25th anniversary of the sombrero-shaped ballpark, and before Sunday's mess-up against Minnesota, former Bucs center Steve Wilson sang Happy Birthday - to the stadium. I'm not kidding.

Tampa Stadium isn't a bad place, but is it worthy of major celebration? This is where two sports franchises have faded, the soccer Rowdies and USFL Bandits, because of their leagues dying around them. This is where University of Tampa football was laid to rest. Sure, there were two Super Bowls at Tampa Stadium, but this is the home of the Buccos, who've now spent 16.6 seasons trying to be an NFL somebody with little to show for it. Tampa Stadium remains a house of too many horrors.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1992