The one that got away
Michelle Kaufman, The St.Petersburg Times, published 11 December 1989

And so, for the seventh consecutive season, Tampa Bay is home to a professional football team that loses more games than it wins. Had the Buccaneers beaten the Houston Oilers Sunday, they would have had a shot at an 8-8 record. But a 20-3 first-half hole was three points too deep, and the Bucs came up short, 20-17.

The loss assured them of a losing record and dropped them into a last-place tie with Detroit in the NFC Central Division. The Bucs (5-9) and Lions play for fourth place Sunday at the Silverdome. Tampa Bay is 2-7 since the teams last met. Detroit is 5-4. Sunday's defeat also put the Bucs in the running for a top-five 1990 draft pick. Only three teams (Dallas, Atlanta and San Diego) have fewer than five victories this season, and the Cowboys forfeited their first-round pick when they selected Steve Walsh in the supplemental draft.

Despite the dreary outlook, Tampa Bay players refused to be depressed. Frustrated, maybe. But not depressed. “We must be doing pretty well to be able to be in almost every game in the last minute,” said tight end Ron Hall. “Anyone who thinks we're the same old Bucs hasn't watched us play. We're real frustrated. We've lost so many close ones and they hurt the worst.”

Sunday had to be especially painful. The Astrodome crowd of 54,532 happily watched visiting Tampa Bay botch opportunity after opportunity. The last, and the one that will probably be remembered most, was James Wilder's fumble on the Houston 21-yard line with 1:18 remaining in the game. Had he held onto the pass from Vinny Testaverde, chances are the Bucs would have either tied or won. Instead, Oilers rookie safety Bubba McDowell recovered at the 18 and Houston took control of the clock. The fumble was reviewed on instant replay, but it stood as called. Nobody in the Tampa Bay locker room pointed a finger at Wilder. “There's no way you can blame James for anything,” said receiver Bruce Hill. “There's a lot more than one play in a game.”

About the only player pushing blame on someone was linebacker Broderick Thomas, who questioned the officials' view of Wilder's play. “I think somebody's been missing their referee class,” he said. “It doesn't take a Phi Kappa Beta (Phi Beta Kappa) to see things aren't going our way. The man was down when the ball came out. The ground can't cause a fumble. This is not the playground. I don't want to sound like I'm griping, but why let a bad call decide a game?”

But Wilder's miscue was just one of many by the Bucs: Donald Igwebuike was wide right on a 48-yard field goal attempt. “Just a bad kick,” said the normally reliable kicker. A motion penalty on Hill nullified a 29-yard pass from Vinny Testaverde to Hall. The completion would have given the Bucs a first down at the Oilers' 30-yard line. Instead, they would have a punt blocked. There would be another blocked punt before the day was through.

Bucs safety Harry Hamilton caused Alonzo Highsmith to fumble, and linebacker Kevin Murphy recovered at the Tampa Bay 15-yard line. Testaverde threw an ill-advised pass to Danny Peebles the very next play, and the ball fell into the hands of Houston defensive back Cris Dishman. A fourth-and-inches at the Bucs 41 turned into fourth-and-6 when Vinny Testaverde's offense took too long to line up. The 45-second clock was broken, so quarterbacks had trouble with time judgment all day.

Probably the Bucs' biggest problem Sunday was a lack of defense during the first half. Moon completed 13 of 18 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns before intermission. He had only one completion for 8 yards in the second half. Tampa Bay's run defense was inconsistent all afternoon. Houston's Mike Rozier averaged 6.3 yards per carry (13-for-82) and Highsmith had 6.2 yards per carry (7-for-44). “It was the worst day of the year for the defensive line,” said end Reuben Davis. “Losing Curt hurt us (Jarvis was injured on the second play of the game), but that should be no excuse. We were just flat. I don't know why. They got some big runs on us early, and we got down on ourselves. I felt like we let the rest of the team down.”

The Oilers' first-half points were scored on Tony Zendejas field goals of 30 and 37 yards, a 12-yard catch by Drew Hill and a 16-yard catch by Curtis Duncan. “We almost lost control of the game, but we showed a lot by coming out and making a game of it,” said Hill.

The second half was different. The Oilers were held to 66 yards of offense and the Bucs scored 14 unanswered points - a 6-yard touchdown reception by Willie Drewrey and a 24-yard catch by Hall. Hall's touchdown was set up with a heads-up play by the Bucs defense on an unusual offensive play by the Oilers. Facing second-and-goal at the Bucs' 2-yard line, Houston chose to pitch an option to Allen Pinkett. He fumbled and Davis recovered.

By the end of the game, Tampa Bay had surpassed Houston in most every statistical category: first downs (23-16), total yards (353-284), and time of possession (33:12 to 26:48). Lars Tate converted three fourth-down plays. Testaverde finished the game 31-of-48, with one interception, for 328 yards. The quarterback also was the team's leading rusher with three carries for 28 yards.

The Bucs' second-half effort got the Oilers' attention. “Vinny is a great talent,” said Houston defensive end Ray Childress. “He was throwing it all over the place, underarm passes, shovel passes, little flicks. If they played like that all year, I don't think they'd be 5-8.”

Oilers coach Jerry Glanville: “If I was living in Tampa, I'd be pretty excited about the future of that football team. They remind me of the Oilers a couple of years ago. They're going to be a real good football team.”

One thing's for certain, said Carrier. “When we do get there, we will have been through every possible situation there is to go through. We should be ready for anything. This season has made us grow up. We can't use that youth excuse anymore. We are a seasoned team.”