Big lead? Big deal: Bucs fall to Rams
All you have to do is put the Tampa Bay Bucs on national television and they start suffering blackouts. Not the kind that kept folks living within a 35-mile radius of Tampa Stadium from viewing Sunday night's game against the Los Angeles Rams on ESPN. We're talking about a where-am-I, what-happened-to-the-24-point-first-half lead, Admiral-James-Stockdale-like, can't-remember-what-hit-me blackout. Jim Everett threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns to lead Los Angeles to 28 consecutive points in the second half and rally the Rams to a stunning 31-27 victory over the Bucs.

It was the worst collapse by a Tampa Bay team since 1987, when the Bucs gave away a 25-point lead in the fourth quarter at St. Louis against the Cardinals. Everett's 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Pat Carter gave the Rams the lead for good with 5:40 left. The come-from-ahead loss spoiled an otherwise grand night for tailback Reggie Cobb, who rushed for 100 yards to go over the 1,000-yard plateau for the season.

To make matters worse, the Bucs' unraveling came before a national television audience, sparing only those blacked out in the Tampa Bay area but not the 38,387 disbelievers at Tampa Stadium - the smallest home crowd of the season. "This is a real uppercut to the gut," Sam Wyche said, "especially since we had a chance to win it. We were saying the right things at halftime, `Let's start over like it's 0-0.' But we didn't play that way. On the road, to win a game like that - they've got to feel like a million dollars."

For sure they don't feel like 47 Bucs. The mind-bending defeat guaranteed Tampa Bay (4-9) its 10th consecutive losing season. Meanwhile, the Rams improved to 5-8. "I don't rank them," Bucs quarterback Vinny Testaverde said of the loss. "This is certainly not a very good feeling. It's embarrassing to come in at halftime, be up by 24 points, not score in the second half and lose the game."

Even by Tampa Bay standards, Sunday night's collapse was something to see and almost too painful to watch. The Bucs used two turnovers and two touchdown passes by Testaverde to build a 27-3 halftime lead. But Tampa Bay's defense disappeared in the second half and the offense went to pieces, giving Everett three turnovers with which to mount the Rams' comeback.

A fumble by rookie fullback Anthony McDowell opened the floodgates and Testaverde was intercepted twice in the second half - the last, by cornerback Darryl Henley, killed the Bucs' final hopes at the Rams' 27 with 1:52 left. "I guess we didn't play the second half the way we played the first half," Wyche said in somewhat of an understatement. "I don't know what happened. We jumped out to a pretty good lead, then we couldn't score. We couldn't get to them, either. We had no pass rush. In a case like that, it's a matter of time until they score points and they did and beat us. It's a tough loss. It's a tough one to handle because we had the lead early. We flat-out weren't good enough."

Everett finished 25-of-38 for 342 yards and three touchdowns. He completed passes to 10 receivers. "It was unreal the way it happened," Bucs cornerback Ricky Reynolds said. "They took the second-half kickoff and wham! wham! They didn't do anything different and we didn't make the adjustments."

The turn of events spoiled what was a good night for Cobb and several other Bucs. Cobb became the Bucs' first 1,000-yard rusher since James Wilder in 1985. Rookie tight end Tyji Armstrong caught an 81-yard touchdown pass. And cornerback Roger Jones returned a fumbled kickoff 26 yards for another score. But, alas, it wasn't enough. "We find out now who the competitors are when it's much easier to quit," Wyche said.

The Bucs chose to pound it on the ground against the Rams' defense, which entered ranked last against the run. But Tampa Bay was forced to settle for first-quarter field goals of 34 and 47 yards by Eddie Murray. Despite the fast start, it was starting to look like opportunity squandered for Tampa Bay. Twice the Bucs stared directly at easy touchdown chances and blinked. Then all heck broke loose.

On first down from his 19, Testaverde faked to Cobb and raised up to feather a pass to Armstrong at midfield. He shook off tackles by Rams safeties Pat Terrell and Anthony Newman, then outran linebacker Roman Phifer to the end zone for an 81-yard touchdown reception. It was Armstrong's first pro touchdown. He was playing in place of starting tight end Ron Hall, who was injured on the previous series.

Before the Rams knew what hit them, they were getting hit again. Bucs rookie Corey Mayfield forced David Lang to fumble the ensuing kickoff and Jones picked up the loose ball and strutted 26 yards for the touchdown and a 20-0 lead. Meanwhile, after Rams fullback Cleveland Gary fumbled on his team's first play, Los Angeles went three-and-out on its next two tries before finally putting a drive together. Everett hit five consecutive completions to move his team 67 yards in 11 plays. But an apparent touchdown pass to Jeff Chadwick was called back because of illegal motion, and coach Chuck Knox played it safe on fourth and goal from the 2 by settling for a field goal by Tony Zendejas.

Testaverde got that back and more, closing out one of the finest halves of his career. Scrambling for two first downs and throwing for another, Testaverde drove the Bucs 92 yards for their third touchdown of the second quarter. Testaverde drilled a 10-yard pass on third down to wide receiver Mark Carrier for a touchdown. Everett tried to rally the Rams right before halftime, but Charles McRae swatted away a 38-yard field-goal attempt by Zendejas as the half ended.

Of course, the Bucs have had problems handling prosperity. True to its nature, Tampa Bay invited the Rams back into the game. Everett started by throwing a 40-yard touchdown pass to Willie Anderson to cap a six-play, 70-yard drive. Then McDowell fumbled away a pass reception to give the ball back to Los Angeles at Tampa Bay's 42. Everett knew what to do, hitting Chadwick with a 27-yard touchdown pass that cut the Bucs' lead to 27-17 with less than five minutes gone in the third quarter.

On the Bucs' next possession, Testaverde's pass bounced off Carrier and was intercepted by cornerback Todd Lyght, who returned it 39 yards to Tampa Bay's 13. Three plays later, Lang scored on a 1-yard run and Tampa Bay fans groaned louder as the lead was whittled to 27-24.

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1992