Future doesn't look better for the Bucs
Sometimes, the crystal ball is a horror movie. Sometimes, you look at the shape of things to come, and the silhouette looks hauntingly familiar. And so it comes to this, perhaps the worst thing anyone could ever believe about the Bucs: At first glance, the future doesn't look a heck of a lot different than the present.

In the language of the Tampa Bay Bucs, a team without much of a past and with absolutely no present, this is a horrible thing to consider. Hey, the future is all this franchise ever has had. But there it was Sunday, future shock for all the world to see. The former University of Miami quarterback leaned over the line, just the way he used to in college when every snap came with a game in the balance. He took the snap cleanly, he faded back to pass, he flipped a quick completion and the play lost 4 yards.

Later, the quarterback would draw a delay-of-game penalty after the two-minute warning timeout. He would throw a pass and hit a Falcons linebacker in the side. He would throw downfield and almost get wide receiver Lawrence Dawsey decapitated. Vinny Testaverde? No, Craig Erickson.

In some ways, that may be even more discouraging for a fan of the Tampa Bay Bucs. Testaverde's shortcomings are well-documented, and the opinions of him seem set in stone. They weren't going to shift considerably with a mid-December game against the Atlanta Falcons. Erickson, on the other hand, is the latest Quarterback of the Future designate, always the most popular position on this team. And the picture of him still having a way to go might have been the most chilling part of the Bucs' 35-7 pasting at the hands of the Falcons on Sunday.

It wasn't so much that Erickson looked bad as it was that he looked, well, like a rookie. He hit 4 of 8 passes for 27 yards, most of the yardage coming when Reggie Cobb made a diving catch for 23 yards. In all, he didn't look so much like a rising star as he did a question that still must be answered. "There are a lot of uncertainties," Erickson said. "But I feel pretty comfortable with the way I've progressed so far, and I'm going to keep progressing."

This was Erickson's sixth appearance of the season, but it was the first time he had stepped onto the field when the game meant anything. His other snaps had come in the fourth quarter of games that had turned meaningless, throwing passes to secondaries that were watching the clock tick down. This time, however, it was 14-7 Atlanta, and fans were still awake just in case this was the dawn of an era. If it was, it was a cautious beginning. Erickson had trouble with the clock twice, and he admitted after the game that "there were a few adjustments I wish I could do again, a couple of passes I wish I could have back." If there was any progress at all, it was from the forgettable days of yore to the unmemorable debut of Sunday. Said Wyche: "He didn't embarrass himself." That, at least, is something.

Whether Erickson should have been in this game at that point will be the subject of some debate this week. Testaverde, at the time, had completed all six of his passes, and had just finished a crisp touchdown drive. Judging by the first quarter, Testaverde could have had quite a day against a defense that has been the NFL's worst. As it was, he never regained his rhythm. On this day, however, Wyche wanted some answers about the future, too. After all, there is the possibility that Sunday was Testaverde's final home game as a Buc (he is a free agent after this year), and somebody has to play quarterback next year.

No, if you are going to question Wyche on this one, then wonder why he inserted Steve DeBerg (to say goodbye perhaps?) in the second half before eventually coming back to Erickson. If it was important to develop Erickson in the first half, then why not in the second? After the game, Erickson stood by his locker and talked, in the cautious tones he has made a personal trademark (his motto: If you don't have anything dull to say, then don't say anything at all). As the reporters gathered around him, Testaverde approached. Testaverde saw the gathering, which had spilled over in front of his locker, and simply turned and walked to the middle of the room and waited. Give Testaverde this: He has seen the popularity of alternative quarterbacks before.

Erickson, however, isn't ready to declare himself as that. He speaks carefully, pondering the weight of each word before he releases it. Does he want a start this year? He's just going to keep plugging. Does he want to contend for the starting job next year? He's just trying to learn. Does he feel comfortable that he can be a starter in this league? Time will tell. The fans, however, will be more than willing to say things for Erickson. They will talk of his arm. They will talk of his feet. They will talk of his ultimate asset of being someone different. Eventually, they will get around to all of it. But first, uh, does anyone know what Mike Pawlawski is doing Sunday?

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1992