Westward no!
For whatever reason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have as much trouble crossing time zones as they do the end zone. What can be said when a team has lost all but one of its 15 games in the Golden State? That West is definitely not best? That if the NFL schedule-makers want to feed the Bucs the right diet of opponents, it should be low Cal? The Bucs got to sleep-in late Sunday, but it was the San Diego Chargers who got up early, building a big first-half lead and (West) coasting to a 29-14 victory.

Several theories as to why Tampa Bay lost were floating about Sunday, along with one inescapable fact: Quarterback Vinny Testaverde was sacked six times and hyperextended his left knee late in the first quarter after he was tackled in the end zone for a safety. Testaverde returned from the injury and wound up 19-of-31 for 187 yards and a touchdown while running (limping?) for the Bucs' other score. But the response by team doctors to Testaverde's knee injury could've applied to the whole Bucs team as well: Brace yourself. "On the positive side was that Vinny got hurt, but we put a brace on it and he went back out there and he made some big plays," Sam Wyche said. "We don't feel beat up, we got beat."

Against the Chargers, it was hard to tell the difference. The Bucs (4-7) entered the game with defensive end Keith McCants (knee) and defensive tackle Santana Dotson (ankle) playing hurt and without the benefit of practice. Adding insult to their injuries was Chargers running back Marion Butts rushing for 104 yards and Ronnie Harmon scoring a touchdown rushing and another receiving. It was Harmon's 6-yard touchdown run with 14 seconds left in the first half that gave San Diego (6-5) an overwhelming 22-7 lead and virtually sealed the Chargers' sixth victory in the past seven games.

That scoring drive was set up when the Bucs failed to convert a third-and-1 situation at their 26. "With exactly two minutes to go in the half, if we make a third down-and-1, we control the ball and that point doesn't get on the board and it's 15-14 in the second half instead of 22-14," Wyche said. "So it would've been a different ballgame."

Of course, it would've been a different ballgame had the Bucs' defense not been shoved backward on touchdown drives of 79 and 61 yards. Or especially if Tampa Bay wasn't so pathetic on special teams. "We took a step backwards there," Wyche said.

At the very least, Courtney Hawkins took one sideways by returning a first-half kickoff just 8 yards vertically and about 30 yards horizonally. Other special-teams blunders included Gary Anderson dropping a kickoff and the Bucs allowing Nate Lewis to return the free kick that followed the safety 62 yards. ven trailing 22-7, Wyche said he felt the Bucs were in it. "They hadn't pulled away yet; it just feels that way to everybody," Wyche said. "We went over there and got our perspective back. I told them we were on Eastern Time and they were all right."

But it was time that Wyche was worried about when he decided to go to the two-minute drill with the Bucs trailing 22-14 with six minutes left in the game. Instead of plowing ahead behind Reggie Cobb, who rushed 17 times for 73 yards - the second-most by any running back this season against the Chargers - the Bucs went upstairs and Testaverde was pressured into five consecutive incompletions. With 1:12 left, San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries strolled around left end from 4 yards out for the final score.

"We moved the ball on them better than anyone has this season on the ground," Wyche said. "But with six minutes left in the game, we should've taken the ball and said, `Okay, we need two scores, we're just going to grind it out.' They were tired. They were worn down. It'd eaten up a lot of clock. If our defense holds them, call timeouts and get one two-minute drive. Instead, with six minutes, we went with the two-minute attack at that point and their pass rush got to us. The strategy could've gone different and maybe the outcome would've been different. I've got to do a better job as a coach of going to the strengths of our team. I think we're a good run team. I wish we'd gone after that more, I'm confessing to you."

Testaverde confessed he was sore, from the sacks and the loss. "Once the ball was snapped, I wasn't focused on the knee," said Testaverde, who threw a 10-yard scoring pass to tight end Ron Hall and ran for a 1-yard touchdown. "I was focused on the play and all those guys running at you. I don't really feel beat up. I didn't take any vicious hits. I took a couple good ones. But that's every game. No big deal."

It was time and not time zones that was on Testaverde's mind as he spoke of the five games remaining in what could be his final Bucs season. "It's definitely going by fast," Testaverde said of the season, if not his career in Tampa Bay. "I'm thinking playoffs. It could still possibly happen, although it doesn't seem like it. The good thing about losing this game, if we win five in a row, is that it's not a conference game."

Win five in a row? Is Testaverde serious or just sentimental? "That's how I have to approach it," Testaverde said. "We have to win next week. I mean we can get in at 8-8. I mean, I'm not giving up. I'm not conceding to this at all. If it doesn't happen, at least I can say I gave it my best shot."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1992