Skidding Bucs scare away fans
Helpful hint for Tampa Bay football fans: If you're considering traveling to a Buccaneers home game in the future, plan on leaving early. Say, by halftime. When you arrive at Tampa Stadium is of little consequence compared to beating Bucs fans to the parking lot by the third quarter of games like the Minnesota Vikings' 35-7 rout over Tampa Bay on Sunday.

By the time Chris Doleman intercepted a pass for the Vikings' fourth straight touchdown just before halftime, many in the crowd of 49,095 stood up and turned their backs on the team that has been an affront to Tampa Bay fans for nine consecutive losing seasons. It was the fifth consecutive loss by the Bucs (3-6) and the second victory in less than a week for the NFC Central Division-leading Vikings (7-2).

Coupled with their 38-7 laugh-track loss two weeks ago to the Detroit Lions, the Bucs have been outscored 73-14 in the worst consecutive regular-season defeats at home in the club's history. "The part that disappoints you is you're at home and you're trying to do something positive in front of your fans," Sam Wyche said. "That doesn't show any progress. I'm not sure that's even running up and down the starting line. It looks like we're retreating, but it's not that way. The guys are looking me square in the eye, almost like, `What's happening here?' "

Whatever it is, it happened again and again against the Vikings. When Minnesota wasn't driving the ball down the Bucs' throats - as they did when Roger Craig's 5-yard touchdown run capped a 67-yard drive to start the game - their defense caught the scoring bug. For example, Al Noga forced a Steve DeBerg fumble that Carlos Jenkins returned 22 yards for a touchdown to leave Tampa Bay trailing 14-0 with 6:10 left in the first quarter. "The second series, when they knocked the ball loose, that's the kind that just kills you," Wyche said. "Steve never saw the guy coming."

Anthony Carter made it 21-0 by scoring on a 10-yard reverse just before the second quarter ended. But before the Bucs could even run out the clock, Doleman one-handed a desperate heave by DeBerg and raced 27 yards for a touchdown just 13 seconds before halftime. Right then, the once-deserted aisles at Tampa Stadium got crowded, and these people weren't going for popcorn. "I was trying to flip the ball to Gary Anderson who was open," DeBerg said. "Gary had hit Doleman and slowed him up so he wasn't very far upfield. Someone else had a good rush on, and Doleman actually made a pretty amazing one-handed catch. It's not too often those things happen."

Unless you're the Bucs. When Tampa Bay wasn't trying to beat Minnesota on Sunday, the Bucs were busy beating themselves. Behind DeBerg, who was making his second consecutive start in place of Vinny Testaverde, the Bucs actually racked up more first downs (24 to 22) and total yards (354 to 296) than the Vikings and only punted once.

But those numbers might as well be written on wet tissue the way the Bucs dissolved nearly every time they got in scoring territory. Tampa Bay drove inside the Vikings' 20 five times Sunday and came away with zilch. Trailing 14-0, the Bucs faced a second-and-7 situation at the Minnesota 9-yard line. But consecutive holding penalties killed the drive, and Ken Willis hooked a 33-yard field-goal attempt, the first of two misses Sunday.

All told, the Bucs failed on three fourth-and-short situations inside the Vikings' 36-yard line. "We thought we were ready to play, and we flat out missed tackles. We looked like defensively, we were getting overwhelmed," Wyche said. "They made these circus catches and broke tackles and we did not, so they won the ballgame. We don't look like we have (improved). It's a little early to make a conclusion on that one, but we sure don't look like we have."

There were few highlights for the Bucs. Rookie Santana Dotson and Ray Seals recorded two sacks apiece, but after the issue had been decided. Linebacker Jimmy Williams intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble. Yet the Bucs' defense allowed Minnesota to convert 7 of 10 third downs, and running back Terry Allen averaged 6 yards per carry to lead all rushers with 84 yards. "The pressure came at the end of the game when Minnesota was trying to up the score and embarrass us," Dotson said. "That got our fire going."

But not even Wyche is certain what it will take to ignite the Bucs the rest of the season, now that their slim playoff hopes are all but mathematically dashed. They have to return to a sellout crowd at Tampa Stadium next week to face Chicago. "All kinds of cycles go through football teams, and we're going through one now that will test our grit," Wyche said. "Part of paying your dues for the winning when it does come, and we will win, is you go through some of these grinding times. I think this ballclub has too many good features to it to say we have to totally rebuild it. Do we have a long way to go? Yeah, absolutely."

Wyche did not say how much further he will go at quarterback with the 38-year-old DeBerg, who was ineffective despite a 28-for-42 passing effort for 239 yards and two interceptions. Rookie Craig Erickson made his third appearance of the season during garbage time to complete 5 of 6 for 51 yards, but it's unlikely he would get his first pro start against the Bears. That leaves Testaverde, who lobbied to return to the starting quarterback job after Sunday's massacre. History is on his side, considering the Bucs are now 0-11 the past six seasons in games started by quarterbacks other than Testaverde.

"I think we need to put the best people we have on the field," Testaverde said. "Am I comfortable with (being on the sideline)? No. The only thing I can say is I want to go in and play. The final decision rests with Sam. It's frustrating for me to sit on the sidelines and watch this team play and knowing I'm not in there. I'm not saying anything negative toward Steve, but each player thinks he's better than the next guy. To go out and not play well and stink the place up makes things worse."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1992