New full-load fullback delivers when it counts
Both times, Tampa Bay's screen passes were expertly staged. Mike Alstott took little lobs from Trent Dilfer, then the Purdue pulverizer kicked 240 fullbacking pounds into killer gear. Both times, it was a "Smashing Pumpkins" concert. Both times, Bucs dressed in ugly orange would turn into a muscle-bound chorus line. Hammering defenders from New Orleans. Both times, Alstott gained open-field momentum, like an 18-wheeler thundering downhill. But, both times, Mike would drop the football.

Bad news, but then heroic. Alstott steamed 25 yards with a second-quarter screen, but then Saints linebacker Winfred Tubbs stripped the football from behind. New Orleans recovered Alstott's fumble. "That play was feeling so good," he said, "but then suddenly it felt awful."

Stotty got another chance. Same play. Third quarter. Same solid blocking. His quarterback, Dilfer, again lofted a well-timed screen pass into Mike's massive, soft, cuddly hands. Ian Beckles, a 304-pound guard, wiped out a Saints pursuer at the 15. Alstott again became a runaway bulldozer. Rumbling up the left sideline, this time Mike gripped the football like a fatso strangling a cheeseburger.

Bucs center Tony Mayberry soon erased another New Orleans chaser. Once the wide, powerful Alstott shoulders got turned upfield, nobody was stopping him. Dilfer knew. He went into premature celebration. "I was trailing the play," said the Bucs quarterback. "Seeing him rolling in the open field, I began grinning and yelling as Mike hit the 10. What an unstoppable load he was." Boilermaker boy crashed over the goal, scoring a 17-yard touchdown that would be Tampa Bay's difference in a 13-7 victory.

One again, he dropped the ball. But this time, Stotty did it with a grin. As teammates were pounding Mike on the back, he went romping through the end zone, heading toward the stands. Heading to the ramp where handicapped fans sit in wheelchairs.

"There's this little boy named Josh, who came to our training camp back in summer," said the powerful athlete. "I've been wanting to score, getting to that (north) end zone where Josh sits. I laid the football in his hands and Josh's eyes got huge. What a wonderful feeling." Dropping the ball had become fun.

Even in the glow of back-to-back-to-back wins, the Bucs have a grip on reality. "We're still not there yet," said coach Tony Dungy. "It's great to have some success. We needed it. But we can play a lot better."

Tampa Bay has begun to control the football. Increasing the opportunities to score. But the Bucs' knockout punch is not perfected. When they might've run up a comfortable lead on New Orleans, they reaped too little from TD chances. Until the end, the Saints had hope of stealing it.

"We didn't play that well on offense," Dilfer said. "Defense won the game. Offensively, we kept being handed the football. This team still needs to develop the killer instinct. We got a lead, but then for too long a time against the Saints, our receivers weren't getting too open and I wasn't throwing too accurately. In such spots, when you become a big-time product, you put the enemy so deep in the ground that it can't rebound."

Dilfer, with more and more a veteran tone in his now-confident voice, spoke lavishly of Alstott's assets. "In my opinion, he's the best in the NFL at what he does," said the 24-year-old quarterback. Everybody likes Mikey. Big Sombrero, charmed by three successive Bucs wins, has fallen deeply in love with the big kid from Purdue with the scuzzy little beard. Alstott is a money's-worth guy. Plays hard, plays tough, plays with a rare kind of fullback talent.

"Daryl Johnston is a fine fullback for the Dallas Cowboys, but Mike has more talent than Moose," Beckles said. "But if we had more national TV exposure, Alstott might beat out Johnston to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie."

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1996