For Bucs' sake, Alstott must recover
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 15 November 1999

This is the way you look at victory. You stand motionless, your eyes glassy from the ugliness you have seen. Your hands are on your hips. Your hat is pushed up on your face, showing how your lips have curled into sheer disgust. This was the snapshot of Mike Alstott, serial fumbler, in the waning minutes of Sunday afternoon's victory by the Bucs. Probably, he looked very much like you. That's the thing with the Bucs.

Even in victory, even on what constitutes a mini- winning streak around here, their success is accompanied by such overwhelming failure that it makes it hard to embrace. Always, there seems to be a fly in the champagne. This time, much of the sour feeling was provided by Alstott, who fumbled for the hat trick. Usually, he is one of his team's biggest positives; this time, he was its biggest negative. Usually, he is one of the Bucs' most popular players; this time, he ran off the field and through a tunnel framed by fans wearing his jersey number, and he heard the unfamiliar sound of boos. And why not?

This is unacceptable. This is carelessness followed by costly followed by catastrophe. One more turnover, and the Allstate Insurance people are going to demand he return their slogan. How tough a day can a fullback have? Alstott lost the ball in the first quarter, in the third, in the fourth. His first fumble led to a Chiefs field goal. His second came with a first and 10 at the Kansas City 16. His third came at the K.C. 17, when the Bucs were trying to run out the clock, and presented the Chiefs with a final chance.

Which brings us back to the image of Alstott, watching helplessly as the Chiefs drove. How must Alstott have felt when Hardy Nickerson intercepted a pass in the end zone to preserve the victory. "Saved," Alstott said. "We always have confidence in our defense, but this time, the feeling was overwhelming."

Alstott stood at his locker, going through the fumbles one by one, his bottom lip jutted out partly from tobacco, partly in defiance of the tough questions. At one point, he was asked if he should be benched. At another, he was asked if he considered himself a fumbler. "I'm not going to think of myself in negative terms," he said. "I'm not going to consider myself a fumbler. My teammates have seen me for four years. They know what I can do, and I know what I can do. They know it's not like me to go out there and fumble."

Thing is, this has always been Alstott's weakness. Last year, he led the league in fumbles lost by a non-quarterback (with five), and he has that many already this year. That's 10 in 25 games. He fumbled against Denver, with the team trying to run out the clock. He fumbled at the goal line against Detroit. Always, it seems, it turns into a big play when he loses the ball. "You get a reputation," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "Kansas City's corners and safeties weren't even trying to tackle Mike. They were going for the ball."

This is the reality. Alstott's problems are known across the league. Chicago's players talked of coming to town and stripping Alstott. Kansas City's, too. Guess what? Atlanta's defense is going to do the same. And Minnesota's and Green Bay's and Detroit's and everyone else's. Once a back gets a reputation as a fumbler, it is a Scarlet Letter. Teams are going to dig and claw at the ball until Alstott shows he can hang onto it. "I'm sure other teams are going to try to do the same," Alstott said. "I have to get better."

If you are the Bucs, this is all you can hope for. You aren't going to bench Alstott. Despite his fumbles, he has proven his value to the offense. What? Are you going to go into a game with Patrick Hape at fullback all the time? With Kevin McLeod? With Warrick Dunn as a single back? No, on this team, there is no Plan B. Alstott just has to hang onto the ball. Simple as that. That's why Alstott still was carrying the ball after two fumbles. "We're concerned," Dungy said. "We're going down the stretch, and he's our best short-yardage back. And then, suddenly, Kansas City has a chance to win."

Look, you can apologize for Alstott all you wish. Yes, he runs into the middle of the line, and he runs hard, and he has a lot of second effort. But he isn't the only back in the league who does those things. Larry Csonka, who almost never fumbled, used to run in traffic. So where is the line?

Even when a player makes plays, when do his mistakes become too many? You want to know how tough it was for Alstott? At the end, Trent Dilfer, the day's silver medalist of turnovers, was defending him. "We have a lot of great players on this team, but Mike might be the best," Dilfer said. "He carries us at times. I've been in Mike Alstott's shoes many times. He'll bounce back. He's a great, great football player."

And he is, which is the tough part of the problem. If Alstott weren't so essential, the Bucs could bench him and move on. But they cannot spare his positives if they are to start a roll. Because if a player is going to carry a team, let alone a ball, you have to believe in his hands.