For a day, this team looked real
There are competitive, suddenly heroic hearts within those battered, belittled Bucs bodies. Sunday looked ominous for Tampa Bay's pro-football strugglers. Playing at Minnesota had the look of the season's least-winnable game for the 2-9 Bucs. Vikings are purple monsters on defense. Warren Moon is their hired gun, brought in from Houston to quarterback a Super Bowl contender. Las Vegas oddsmakers couldn't have been more convinced. Minnesota was their 13 1/2-point Sunday favorite.

But instead of surrendering, your Bucs chose to become a tighter fraternity. They flew north with applaudable attitude, where Tampa Bay's guys played their last-place guts out against Minnesota. A week earlier, the Bucs were zebra-robbed in Seattle, but they chose to rebound like champs instead of chumps, and to outhustle, outplay and eventually out-score the Vikings in overtime. A splash of justice.

Hold the obituaries. It's not yet time to write our "Imperfect 10s" diatribes. Eventually, this is almost sure to become the 12th consecutive Tampa Bay season in which 10 or more games are lost. But wasn't Sunday an entertaining departure? Your Bucs are 3-9, holding off the inevitable. With a winning streak of one. I stayed home. Watched the Bucs-Vikings affair on television. Didn't figure it was worth the trip to Minnesota, to slop around in cold and snow, just to write my 3,847th column about a Tampa Bay loss. They shocked me. Fooled me.

Bucs rushers put effective heat on Moon, sacking him five times. That provided Tampa Bay's secondary with chances to accomplish reasonably consistent coverage. Eric Curry even had his annual sack. Errict Rhett again ran efficiently. Erickson often stepped up into the pocket, finding Bucs receivers. George Stewart-coached special teams did terrific work, even if Michael Husted kept botching long field goals and Dan Stryzinski punted like a dead-legged man down the stretch.

Overall, most impressive Bucs defenders did superb work to stonewall Vikings runners, Mark Wheeler reappeared in what has been a lousy season for the nose tackle from Texas A&M. Hardy Nickerson looked more his old linebacking self, making big plays to short-circuit Moon's drives. Tampa Bay, for much of Sunday, had the look of a legitimate and respectable NFL team. Why is it so occasional?

Concerning a far larger issue, this is a franchise worth saving. Worth keeping in our neighborhood. Maybe not worth $200-million, but worth our trouble to fight any attempt to rechristen your Tampa Bay Bucs as the Baltimore Crabs or some such garbage. If we're clever, creative and serious, Tampa Bay's mutilated pro football past can be effectively disguised. We'll buy no name change, but the Bucs could go into what amounts to a federal witness protection program.

Give them a fresh coat of paint. Something black, maybe red, even electric blue. Anything but that ominous, outrageous orange. Strip the winking wimp from their helmets, replacing Bucco Bruce with a more manly, more respectable logo. They're not far from being okay. I'm beginning to semi-believe Sam Wyche, their beleaguered head coach. Among the 47 athletes on Tampa Bay's payroll, you could replace maybe six with better people and convert your banged-around NFL losers into respected contenders.

Paint them up. Give them new, more professional uniforms. Restructure their identity. With a new image, your Bucs could be a far better NFL outfit as soon as 1995. Let's hope some rich, foresighted locals see similar promise, deciding to bag the Tampa Bay franchise that is up for sale. Keeping it here, in an improved Tampa Stadium. It's got to get better. There are no more Culverhouses to goof it up. Tampa Bay deserves a break. Its NFL franchise deserves a break. You deserve a break. Pro football should be enjoyed, not loathed. Something our community hasn't done much of since 1982. You deserve the opportunity.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1994