To score or not to score: That is the question
As a man who never met a story he couldn't spin, Sam Wyche must think things are looking up.
The fans may be after his head, but at least they have had a weapons reduction in what they throw. This time as Wyche ran off the field, the object that went flying past his skull was a plastic cup. Last year, it was a pair of binoculars.
With the Bucs, this is what passes for improvement. Your team runs up the score on Jacksonville, 17-16, and you shoot right up those popularity polls.
So Wyche glared into the stands. Then he turned around and walked back toward the field, to the corner of the end zone. He stood there defiantly, allowing fans to take aim if they wished, standing there in the smugness that comes to him when his team wins.
This was a man in his moment. Even in victory, Wyche remains a target. Even after a successful afternoon, he courts criticism as if it were a prize to be won.
Sunday was no different. Even after the team's first win in a month, even after drawing to within one game of stopping the double-digit loss streak at 12 years, there was something disappointing about the man and his offense.
No, winning does not forgive everything. Wyche would have you believe it does, that hanging on to beat an expansion team salves every worry and validates every decision. That because you get a lot of luck and win by a point over Jacksonville, everything is fine.
But it isn't. The engine still sputters and the wheels still feel as if they are about to come off. The offense still is much, much less than the sum of its parts.
What is going on? Wyche has been here for four years, and his offense cannot click the way this newborn opponent's did on a 96-yard scoring drive in the closing minutes. Does Jacksonville have a back you would trade for Errict Rhett? No. Does it have an offensive line that has been together as long, or is as well paid, as Tampa Bay's? No. Does it have a receiving corps like the Bucs? No. Does it have a quarterback as highly touted as Trent Dilfer? No. So what's wrong? And why is it still wrong?
Wyche has taken Alvin Harper and turned him into a journeyman receiver. He has taken Dilfer and turned him into a quarterback who has to struggle to pass for more yards than his team's tailback gets on the ground. He has taken his offense and given fans more types of huddles than touchdowns.
So the fans throw things. Who knows? It could have been Dilfer. The cup, after all, did sail high and wide.
Frankly, there is not another team in this division that has the same number of weapons as the Bucs. And they struggle to get 17 against Jacksonville. In the third period, they ran six plays and gained 6 yards. The quarterback could not throw, the receivers could not catch and the coach called plays as if his headset were picking up signals from the Galileo.
A reverse inside the red zone? Goal-line plays where you take out Harper in favor of Lamar Thomas? Dave Moore in the slot?
It makes no sense. Not many touchdowns, either. In a corner of the locker room, where the war horses of the offensive line wind down, center Tony Mayberry and guard Ian Beckles sat Sunday afternoon. It should have felt better, Mayberry said to Beckles. "We've won as many games as any time since I've been here, and we've got five more to go," he said. "We ought to be jumping up and down. But that isn't the case. We didn't do our part. Yeah, I'm happy as far as us scoring more points. But not as far as us playing the way we ought to play. We put it on the defense again. Their last drive never should have happened, because we should have run out the clock."
The Bucs didn't. In their last possession, they went three and out. Think of this offense in overtime, needing to drive to win, and you may feel free to shudder.
Part of the problem is Dilfer continues to play like a rookie. He threw horribly Sunday. Much of the time, Dilfer plays like he has no confidence in Wyche, and Wyche coaches like he has no confidence in Dilfer, and the result is the fans have confidence in neither. Dilfer seems skittish about being pulled constantly, and when he plays poorly, Wyche loses faith in the playbook, and the team game plan stalls on the table of contents.
In the meantime, nothing changes. And the man to blame stands in the corner of the end zone, lucky to win, lucky no one else had anything to throw.
Even on a day of outrageous fortune, it turns out, you get some slings and arrows.
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1995