A loss to haunt the off-season
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 9 November 1998

This is the one they will remember. This is the one that will eat at the pit of their stomachs. They will sit in their living rooms, as scattered as yesterday's promise, and they will turn on the NFL playoffs. There will be many teams there, but not this one, and they will curse their fate for that. Then the members of the Tampa Bay Bucs will think of this night, and what slipped away, and they will toss the remote control aside in disgust. And they will walk away from the room and toward wherever it is that disappointments go.

This is the loss that will not go away, not today or next week or any time to come. When the members of the Bucs think of a season that did not measure up, and of the goals they did not reach, this is the defeat that will ache more than any of them. The night a nomadic band from parts unknown waltzed into their stadium and trampled on whatever was theirs. All season, they have been a check in the mail. But even in a season of undelivered promise, this was the worst cut of all. This was the first time the Bucs have blown a lead, a winning record and possibly a season all in the same motion.

It wasn't just that the Tennessee Oilers beat the Bucs on Sunday night. By now, Bucs fans have come to recognize the sight of their team in defeat, even the current edition that came with all the promises. But the way the Oilers won, the way Eddie George stomped all over their souls, left a stench that will take a long time to go away. This was awful. This was the ultimate tease by a team that cannot stand prosperity.

This was a 13-point lead, blown like a kid's allowance at the arcade. Since when do Tony Dungy's teams squander leads? This was a run defense that could not figure how to slow a running game? Since when do teams run at will on Dungy's teams? This was the kind of defeat that rips a team's heart out and bares its soul. In other losses this year, the Bucs have been putrid from the coin toss. This time, they fooled you.

At the half, it seemed the world was going the way of the Bucs. They had a 16-3 lead. Bert Emmanuel had made a catch he had no business making, a juggling act that took five caroms before it settled into his hands for a 58-yard touchdown. This was Warren Sapp crunching Steve McNair, a play that harkened back to a year ago. This was players making plays, until you wondered if maybe, just maybe, the team finally had arrived.

And then it was gone. Poof. Just like that, the juggling act was a disappearing act. Who knows? Maybe we should have seen it coming. Success has been such a fleeting thing for the Bucs this season, maybe we should have looked upon any lead with distrust. Just like that, Trent Dilfer was throwing touchdown passes to the wrong team. The defensive line kept huddling to see if anyone had figured out what number George was wearing. The patchwork secondary was piling up penalties three to a play.

What has happened to this Bucs defense? The shredding was understandable a week ago, when a preseason secondary could not match up with Minnesota's trio of wide receivers, merely the finest in the game. But since when does a team blow into the RayJay and run through the Bucs the way George did? He was Eric Dickerson in full gallop, running a team back into the game. He went for 14 yards and a touchdown to cut the Bucs lead to six, and then, on consecutive plays, he went for seven, for 16 and for 30. Along the way, he stepped on every dream the Bucs have left. You want to find your season, Tampa Bay? Look on the bottom of No. 27's cleats, by George.

Even at the end, when the Bucs had a chance to salvage the game with a defensive stop, it could not. George moved the chains for one first down, and McNair went 71 yards with the coffin-nailer. When he got near the goal, he launched himself into the air and came down in the end zone. From here, it looked as if he landed on the Bucs' season.

Oh, let's put the prerequisite disclaimer about here. There is so much mediocrity in the league, a 4-5 record hardly means a team can't make the playoffs. Flirting with the playoffs merely means flirting with being better than .500, and the Bucs should manage to do that. But do they deserve to go there? Not if they can't play better than this, they don't.

This was supposed to be where the roll began. November is the money month, the Bucs' players kept saying. They were home, where they had not lost. They had a lead. Every disappointing team has nights like this, where a game gets away from it, and the players look at the scoreboard and wonder when it changed. Today, this is where this one is. Wondering what happened. Wondering where it all went. And wondering if anything will erase the disgust they feel. It won't.