`We just hit rock bottom'
The third-largest collapse in NFL history carved a few pieces out of Sgt. Rock. Embattled Buccaneers defensive coordinator Floyd Peters was still rubbing his eyes Monday, one day after watching his team blow a 24-point lead to the Los Angeles Rams.

"I love what I'm doing and I'll be doing it until they kick dirt on me," Peters said. "But if we have any more games like the one we had Sunday, they'll be kicking dirt on me on the sidelines. What's tough for the players in the locker room is that all the people across the countrysaw it. People watch those games in our business. Those people who think we're pros saw that, and it's got to be a bitter pill to swallow. They say sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you wake up. Well, we just hit rock bottom."

Tampa Bay's defense entered Sunday night's nationally televised game on ESPN with three starters on injured reserve: defensive end Ray Seals, linebacker Calvin Tiggle and safety Tony Covington. But on Monday, Peters outlined some hard truths on the state of the Bucs.

Rather than dwell on the depth of Tampa Bay's profound depth problem, Peters said the Bucs' long history of losing has been too much to overcome this season. According to Peters, the Bucs still lack an impact player on defense despite playing with two No. 1 picks - linebacker Broderick Thomas and defensive end Keith McCants. Peters also noted the lack of durability on the defensive line - particularly with the series of knee injuries that has plagued McCants this season.

"The way that game went? It shows a weakness that's ingrained for nine or 10 years on this team," Peters said. "There's no veterans on that football field that have any confidence. The oldest veteran football player we've got has lived through this nightmare for as long as the oldest veteran is. When you go to another team, there'll be veterans who'll remember back two or three years ago when they were in the playoffs, and they tell all of these young pups. Here, they don't know anything but disappointment and torture."

After building a 27-3 halftime lead, the Bucs allowed Los Angeles quarterback Jim Everett to throw three touchdown passes, rallying the Rams to a stunning 31-27 comeback win at Tampa Stadium. It was the worst collapse since the Bucs blew a 25-point lead at St. Louis in 1987 against the Cardinals - which still ranks second among the worst folds in league history. The worst is 28 points, by New Orleans at San Francisco in 1980.

The loss was particularly unsettling for Peters, who took the Bucs' defense from 24th overall to 11th in the league last year and has watched it plummet to 19th this season. Much of the defense's collapse can be traced to injuries. Down to their third left tackle, the Bucs started free agent Mark Duckens there Sunday. Until signing two weeks ago, Duckens had spent the season at home in Indianapolis. Darrick Brownlow, a free agent who was signed to help out on special teams, made his second start at middle linebacker against the Rams. Earlier this year, the Bucs signed dormant linebacker E. J. Junior as a free agent and started him the same week.

"We're two or three weeks into the season and we don't have any linebackers, so we're starting to bring them in off the streets," Peters said. "We've got to build a depth of talent to survive attrition. Last year at this time we were talking about the same thing, about the defensive line being busted up. We found two players with the rookies - Santana Dotson and Mark Wheeler. Now we've got to find two more."

Peters said he agreed with the decisions to part with veterans Kevin Murphy, Jesse Solomon and Reuben Davis rather than possibly have them around this season to provide depth on defense. "In each case, we made the right decision."

But he lamented the absence of an impact player on defense and questioned the durability of his linemen, particularly McCants, who has started all 13 games but has had fluid drained from his knee several times this season. "There's a type of a horse who can play in the pits and not get hurt," Peters said. "You can't have guys who have to get their knee drained. Or guys who are hurt every game. Every one of our No. 1s the past five or six years should be for real. Where are they?"

Peters said things will not get easier for the Bucs' defense, which concludes the season against high-octane offenses in games against Atlanta, San Francisco and Phoenix. "We've won four ballgames. Big deal," Peters said. "And it was a pain to get that fourth one. We've got to get to that fifth and sixth win. Those are going to be real pains, too."

Coach Sam Wyche also was at a loss for answers Monday and conceded that he may have underestimated the task of rebuilding the Bucs into a winner. "I've always taken pride in the fact that I thought players would listen to me, that I could find the hot button, so to speak," Wyche said. "And I haven't found the hot button for this team consistently."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1992