Bucs stumble early, fall 44-34
Right after the opening kickoff, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new quarterback took the field with the story of the game on his back. No, not his name. His number, 14. Vinny Testaverde fumbled twice on his first four plays as a starter, spotting the New Orleans Saints 14 points. The Saints never looked back and went on to a 44-34 victory that clinched the first playoff berth in their 21-year history.

But a 14-point swing in the third quarter, triggered by a penalty and a fumble, swung the momentum and saved the Bucs from a laughable final score. The penalty called back a New Orleans touchdown that could have made it 45-10 with seven minutes left in the third quarter, and the Bucs scored four plays later to make it 38-17. Testaverde wound up throwing for 369 yards and two touchdowns, although he completed only 22 of 47 passes. He was intercepted twice, in addition to the two lost fumbles.

So for the Bucs, it started out as one of those all-too-frequent lopsided fiascos and ended up as one of those all-too-frequent alleged ``moral victories.`` ``Like I told the team after the game, anytime that you lose I think it hurts you,`` said head coach Ray Perkins. ``First of all, we are old enough and mature enough to understand that we can't make some of the mistakes we made early and hope to win. But they can be proud, and I sure am proud, that they fought.``

New Orleans won its sixth straight fight and now has a 9-3 record, or 7-2 not counting the strike replacement games. The Saints trail San Francisco by just one game in the NFC Western Division and can do no worse than a wild-card spot. Tampa Bay lost its fifth straight to drop to 4-8 overall, 2-7 excluding the strike games. So while the Bucs saved themselves from embarrassment, they were unable to stem the tide of frustration. ``We just can't get ourselves in that kind of a situation,`` said nose tackle Mike Stensrud, currently the only veteran on a defensive line that has been rocked by injuries. ``It's discouraging. But I played on five losing teams in Houston, and I didn't see much fight. I see a lot of fight in these guys and that's very encouraging.``

In throwing for 369 yards, Testaverde may have started a productive partnership with rookie wide receiver Mark Carrier, who caught eight passes for 212 yards and a touchdown. His yardage was a team record, surpassing a 178-yard performance by Kevin House in 1981. It also more than doubled Carrier's season and career total of 176 yards. Two weeks ago he was demoted to the inactive list for one game. ``I was kind of down on myself for not doing things right,`` said Carrier, a Louisiana native. Said Perkins, ``Up to this point I'd been a little disappointed in his play. This should help his confidence. A lot of times that's all a young guy needs.``

Yet what made it all possible was those first 14 points, that put the Bucs in a hole they never escaped. Since the Bucs trailed 28-10 at halftime, Testaverde threw 28 passes in the second half. He dropped back or rolled out with the intention of passing on all but four of Tampa Bay's 35 second-half plays. The trouble started on the third play of the game. Testaverde eluded one pass rusher but dropped the ball as he was trying to get away from the second one. Defensive end Bruce Clark recovered at the Tampa Bay 19-yard line, and four plays later the Saints scored on an 8-yard pass from Bobby Hebert to tight end John Tice.

On the play after the kickoff Testaverde fumbled the snap, and outside linebacker Pat Swilling picked the ball up to give the Saints a first down at the Bucs' 38. Four plays later there was an echo in the Superdome, as Hebert and Tice connected again for a 6-yard score. So after just 6:09 had been played it was 14-0, and a sellout crowd of 66,471 was ready to start the party. But for the next three hours every time the champagne corks were about to pop, Testaverde did something to spoil the mood. ``I think that he showed a lot of character in that he didn't let the beginning of the game affect his overall performance,`` said Steve DeBerg, the deposed former starting quarterback. ``A lot of times when you're a good player and you mess up at the beginning of the game it kind of tunes you into it. It snaps you into it. I think that's what happened to Vinny.``

The Bucs started moving the ball on their next series, when they made their first two first downs. They wound up with 27. After an exchange of punts they drove 48 yards to score, and Testaverde scored his first NFL rushing touchdown before he threw his first touchdown pass. On first-and-goal at the New Orleans 1-yard line, Testaverde ran to his right and couldn't find a receiver. He cut upfield, dove for the goal line and extended his right arm to punch the ball into the end zone.

So briefly, it was a close game at 14-7. New Orleans came right back with touchdowns on its next two series, the first on a 71-yard drive and the second on a 4-yard drive set up by Mel Gray's 80-yard punt return. After that the Bucs were never within striking range. After the Saints scored a field goal on their first possession of the second half, Gray returned another punt 50 yards to the Tampa Bay 20 to set up a touchdown that made it 38-10. Asked for an assessment of the Bucs' punt coverage, Perkins said: ``What punt coverage? I didn't see any.``

Then came the sudden 14-point swing that kept the Bucs from being pushed into the Mississippi River. Testaverde was intercepted by outside linebacker Rickey Jackson, and the Saints took the ball at the Bucs 29. On their first play fullback Barry Word took a screen pass and went in for an apparent touchdown - or at least it was apparent to the majority of the fans who hadn't noticed that New Orleans wide receiver Mike Jones had felled Bucs cornerback Rod Jones with an obvious clip.

The penalty brought the ball back out to the 27, and three plays later Rueben Mayes fumbled a handoff from Hebert. Bucs reserve cornerback Don Anderson scooped the ball up and ran 38 yards to the New Orleans 37. On the next play Testaverde threw that first professional touchdown pass, which Carrier caught on the left sideline as he crossed the goal line.

The Bucs scored on their next three series, too. Donald Igwebuike kicked his second field goal of the game from 43 yards out. Testaverde hooked up with another rookie wideout, Bruce Hill, for a 12-yard score, the first of Hill's career. Backup fullback Bobby Howard fought through tacklers for a 2-yard touchdown run that closed the scoring with 1:56 left. There was a glimmer of hope for a comeback after Hill's touchdown, which made it 41-27 with 9:49 to play. But on the fifth play of the next series Hebert threw to Eric Martin on third-and-7 for a critical 34-yard gain. That led to a 32-yard field goal by Morten Andersen that put it out of reach at 44-27 with 3:34 left.

John Luttermoser, The St.Petersburg Times 7 Decmber 1987