Aerial attack fries dazed Bucs defense
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 15 November 1993

It was on the right forearm of Martin Mayhew, about a foot or so above his Super Bowl ring. The game was old now, but the wound was fresh and raw. It was pink and red, puffy and somewhat uncomfortable to see. But as burn marks go, it wasn't nearly as bad as you would have expected.

Not after Sunday. Not after the way Steve Young and Jerry Rice torched the defense of the Tampa Bay Bucs. Not after the San Francisco 49ers blasted the Bucs 45-21, with enough ease so George Seifert could let his seniors go early so they could get to the homecoming dance on time. Even by the standards of the blush-proof Bucs, this was embarrassing. San Francisco scored on seven of its first eight possessions, gained 380 yards in three periods and turned what was billed as an NFL game into a glorified game of pitch-and-catch between Young and Rice.

Silver lining No. 1: It sure is a good thing that the Bucs defense is the strong part of their game. Who knows how bad this would have been otherwise. There was particular ugliness to the Bucs' latest futility. Most of the season, the Bucs defense - especially when contrasted with its offense - has been painted as Spartans fighting impossible odds. Yes, they were 26th in the NFL in both points and yardage allowed coming in (safe bet: they didn't climb in the standings), but even that was excused because the defense spends so much time on the field and in such poor field position.

Sunday, however, the 49ers ran past the Bucs as if they were volunteers from the studio audience. Any day now, wide receivers from around the league are going to line up outside the gate to get a shot at this secondary. Silver lining No. 2: George Seifert did not run up the score, partially because he does not have to impress AP poll voters. It will be popular, of course, to dump this game at Mayhew's locker. After all, it was Mayhew who kept such a close watch on Rice's back as Rice kept crossing the goal line. It was Mayhew who got Charles Dimryed. It was Mayhew who was the toast du jour.

Even Mayhew tried to blame Mayhew. He sat at his locker, refusing to talk about the times he did not get help from safety Joe King (to understand what Joe King is doing in the lineup, say his name real fast. That's right, somebody's joking.). Mayhew simply looked up, unblinking, and said it was his fault. "If Jerry Rice doesn't make any plays, we win the game," he said. "I take this loss on myself. If I shut down Jerry Rice, we win the game."

Right. And if Mayhew could fly, he could patch up that nasty ozone problem. The truth is that Mayhew couldn't cover, and he couldn't cover up. No, he couldn't stop Rice. But who in the world should have expected him to? Would someone please explain why Rice, the best receiver in history, is running alone with Mayhew? Of course Rice won. Rice trumps Mayhew the way scissors trump paper.

Silver lining No. 3: Someday, they may do a sequel to Backdraft. The way this secondary got burned, the game film can serve as an audition tape. As happens after a lot of accidents, the witnesses seemed to disagree on how it happened. Mayhew said he had a poor day playing man-to-man. Bucs head coach Sam Wyche said the team did not blitz much, so that it could double-cover Rice. Ricky Reynolds said the team didn't change much to help out with Rice. Defensive coordinator Floyd Peters said it changed a lot. With all that, is it any wonder that Rice was running so free?

All you really can say is this: If the Bucs indeed covered Rice man-to-man, it was the worst job of double coverage in NFL history. And if they did more to stop him, can you imagine how many he would have scored if they had not? Look, this is a deeper problem than a star extending his personal highlight film at the expense of the Bucs. This is the second time in four games that a wide receiver has gone through Tampa Bay for four touchdowns. You don't excuse it by shrugging and saying that the guy's a pretty good player.

If it is scheme, somebody needs to change it. If it is players, somebody needs to change them. Unfortunately for the Bucs, this passing thing seems to be catching on. Silver lining No. 4: If the Bucs play this Rice guy again, they'll be ready. Next time, they'll have heard that he's pretty good.