Vikings sack Bucs
Leave it to the Tampa Bay Bucs to put others first - not to mention second, third, and fourth - at their own expense. Somehow, they've managed to keep everybody alive in the NFC Central but themselves. Three games ago, Detroit was desperate for a win, and got it with the Bucs in town. Last week at Green Bay, a rout of Tampa Bay cemented the Packers' hold on the division lead.

On Sunday, Brother Sam's traveling salvation show rolled into the Metrodome, where the 6-6 Vikings were trying to save their season at the expense of the 6-6 Bucs. Suffice to say, Minnesota's playoff chances roll on as Tampa Bay completed its six-week, first-to-worst journey with a 31-17 loss to the Vikings. Patience, Bears fans; your turn comes in two weeks.

In a game described by some Bucs as do or die, Tampa Bay didn't do much of anything. Especially in the first half, when the Vikings went over, around and through the hapless Bucs for four touchdowns, a 28-7 lead, and 351 of their 452 total yards. Losing for the fifth time in six games, Tampa Bay (6-7) dropped below .500 for the first time since it was 1-2, and fell into sole possession of last place in the Central, a half-game behind Detroit, which plays Chicago tonight.

"I really thought they were going to play well today," said a baffled Bucs defensive coordinator Rusty Tillman, whose unit again was burned for big plays and saw the Vikings top 300 yards of offense with six minutes left in the first half. "That first half was the worst half of football that I've ever been involved with in my life. And that's the third time this year I've said that. (I said it) at Carolina, and last week, and this week."

But Tillman was right. This was no ordinary debacle, even by Tampa Bay standards of futility. Not only did the Bucs lose any realistic shot at the playoffs, for the second straight week they lost a rather key player in the thick of things. When was the last time you saw an NFL starting quarterback thrown out of a game? Following Hardy Nickerson's lead last week at Green Bay, Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer was tossed out for fighting with Vikings defensive tackle John Randle, exiting with 6:39 remaining in the third quarter and Tampa Bay down 28-7.

Dilfer's bizarre season just rolls on. He has now left a game every way imaginable: due to exhaustion, injury, ejection, and dejection. "I can't believe they ejected a quarterback," said Dilfer, who finished 9-of-18 for 148 yards with one interception. "If Jeff Hostetler does that or Steve Young does it, they're going to call him a tough guy and everybody's going to applaud him. I guess in my situation, they kick me out of the game."

You couldn't really blame Dilfer if he wanted to beat a hasty retreat. In the first half alone, he was sacked five times (the Bucs allowed a season-worst eight overall), hurried on six throws, knocked down eight times, fumbled twice, and with the score 14-7 Vikings, threw a costly interception that snuffed out Tampa Bay's best chance to make a game of it. "Same old Bucs," said Vikings middle linebacker Jeff Brady, who spent last year with Tampa Bay. "They came in here scared. I knew Trent Dilfer wouldn't beat us. I wanted Trent to stay in there. Casey Weldon was the better quarterback."

Playing the martyr role to the hilt, Bucs coach Sam Wyche tried repeatedly to take the sins of his team upon his own shoulders. Stopping short of saying his team came out flat in what obviously was the season's most crucial game, Wyche targeted a lack of emotion from his players. "I didn't get the team ready for this ballgame," Wyche said. "I suppose I didn't mash the right buttons."

Wyche was attempting to become the first Bucs coach to defeat Minnesota three straight games. Instead he slipped to 0-for-2 with three chances remaining in his drive to end the franchise's badge of dishonor: an NFL-record 12 consecutive double-digit loss seasons. "I think it's just me," Wyche said. "I've got to come up with the right strategy in terms of psychological staging for this team. They are looking up at bottom right now."

It was far easier to look toward the defense Sunday. The Bucs gave up at least 30 points for the second straight game after going 11 games without allowing more than 27. The Vikings' 452 yards of offense and 190 yards rushing were the most surrendered by the Bucs this season. At the half, Minnesota's 351 yards of offense were almost as much as Tampa Bay produced in its best game all season (411 against Detroit). With two plays left in the first quarter, the Vikings held a 14-0 lead and a 199-1 edge in total yardage.

Minnesota's offensive stars were plentiful. Quarterback Warren Moon was 20-of-32 for 272 yards. His two touchdown passes went to the NFL's leading receiver, Cris Carter (27 and 60 yards), who beat Martin Mayhew both times. The Bucs' cornerback gained a measure of revenge by intercepting two Moon passes. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's offense was limited to 256 yards, with all but 83 of it coming in the second half. Tampa Bay's touchdowns came from running back Jerry Ellison (a 1-yard run) and receiver Alvin Harper (a 38-yard pass from Weldon).

The Bucs' sorry plight was captured in one quintessential five-play period of the second quarter. With Tampa Bay down 14-7 and starting a drive on the Vikings' 45 after Mayhew intercepted Moon, the game's next five snaps resulted in: a Bucs turnover (interception by Vikings free safety Orlando Thomas); the Moon-to-Carter 60-yard touchdown bomb; another Bucs turnover (a sack, strip and fumble recovery by ex-FSU standout Derrick Alexander); and after a short completion, Scottie Graham's 23-yard tackle-busting touchdown run.

That made it 28-7 with 8:27 remaining in the half, and left folks like Tillman struggling to address accountability. "Coaches can just do so much," Tillman said. "People have to be accountable for their own actions. Professional football players get paid a lot of money, and I can't imagine that someone's not ready to play. If that's happening, something's very, very wrong."

Don Banks, The St.Petersburg Times 1995