Streak's over, Bucs party
If you think the Tampa Bay Bucs started their celebration a little too early Sunday, then you just didn't get your invitation. There's celebrating early, and then there is celebrating early. Sam Wyche planned a victory party at One Buc Place four days before his team knew who they would be toasting - in this case, Chicago Bears kicker Kevin Butler, for missing a 44-yard field-goal try with one second left that would have tied the score. Instead of overtime, the Bucs got ready for party time following their nervy 20-17 victory over the Bears before 69,102 at Tampa Stadium.

The victory snapped Tampa Bay's five-game losing streak and put it in a somewhat meaningless three-way tie at 4-6 for second place in the NFC Central. It also improved the attendance at Sunday night's bash at One Buc Place, which Wyche informed his team of on Wednesday. "How about that for a gutsy call? We planned a party after the game," Wyche said. "We called it a victory party."

And what if, by some strange coincidence, the Bucs had lost? "We just wouldn't have had a very good turnout," Wyche said.

As it turned out, the Bucs may have celebrated a little too early on the field. Behind the return of quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who was making his first start since being benched for two games (both losses), the Bucs built a 20-0 lead in the first half, then nearly gave it all back. The team that rolled to 13 first downs in the first half managed just one in the second half. Meanwhile, the Bears scored 17 consecutive points and needed only a straighter kick from Butler to keep the game going.

The Bucs managed to hang on because of Testaverde's throwing, Reggie Cobb's running and Keith McCants staying in the face of Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh like freckles. Cobb finished with 114 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. McCants had two sacks and seven tackles and forced a Harbaugh fumble that led to the Bucs' second touchdown. And yet it wasn't until Butler's second miss of the game - he left a 45-yarder short and to the right in the first half - that the Bucs had something to celebrate.

Of course, Bears coach Mike Ditka may have planted some seeds of doubt in Butler's mind earlier in the game when he called his kicker "gutless" and "mentally weak" after one of his kickoffs went out of bounds. Wyche had knots in his stomach just thinking about Butler knotting the score. "I thought from the crowd reaction it was going wide," Wyche said.

The crowd reaction? With roughly 30,000 Bears fans egging the visitors on? "I forgot for a moment it was a 50-50 deal today, for and against," Wyche said.

That was roughly the odds on Testaverde's future in Tampa Bay when he took the field Sunday. Three other times he had returned from benchings in his career and lost games, but this was different. Testaverde responded by going 12-of-21 for 182 yards and a touchdown - 168 of those yards in the first half. In fact, he attempted only six passes after Wyche got conservative with his play-calling while trying to sit on the 20-0 lead.

"These guys have been tough on (Testaverde) in the past," Wyche said of the Bears, but he could've been talking about anyone. "They've been in his face. The pressure was on him as big as it's ever been, and he came through. I'll tell you what I think about Vinny. I think when we get our team together, and I mean when we've got an offensive line that's played together long enough that they're called a real solid, stalwart offensive line, and maybe get one of those pure speedsters going up the field, we've got a good running game - I think you're going to see this guy become a real top quarterback. I don't want to make it sound like he's arrived and everybody else hasn't. That's wrong. He's got a lot to learn. There's a talent there we didn't want to let go of. We didn't. I'm glad we didn't. I'm glad we put him right back in."

If the two-game hiatus affected Testaverde, it was for the better. He came out smoking, completing seven of his first 10 passes for 123 yards to stake the Bucs to a 10-0 lead before the first quarter ended. Testaverde's first touchdown drive was a walk through a minefield. The Bucs had to go 93 yards - just a yard shy of the longest scoring march in club history - before Cobb plunged over from a yard out. And 36-year-old kicker Eddie Murray, making his first appearance for Tampa Bay since replacing the deposed Ken Willis, connected on field goals of 31 and 40 yards in the first half.

But it was the Bucs' defense that provided some breathing room. On third and 10 with Chicago trailing 13-0, McCants stripped quarterback Jim Harbaugh of the football and rookie Santana Dotson pounced on it at the Bears' 15. On second down, Testaverde faked a handoff and threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ron Hall with 1:53 left in the half.

McCants harassed Harbaugh all day and part of the night, leading a defense that limited Chicago to 55 total yards in the first half and 2-of-11 in the game on third-down conversions. Testaverde said Wyche got his players' attention on Tuesday by waiving three veterans - wide receiver Willie Drewrey, Willis and linebacker E.J. Junior. "While you're weeding the garden, sometimes the blooms don't show," Wyche said. "You've got to get all the weeds out and get all the changes made."

McCants spoke in the same metaphor: "This franchise is going to bloom sooner or later." Maybe that's what the Bucs' hoedown was Sunday night: a garden party.

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1992