Punched out
Well, at least the Tampa Bay Bucs aren't just punching in their timecards. Their fists also were flying when they went four rounds, er, quarters, with the Los Angeles Raiders on Sunday, and the team that dresses like cantaloupe was no tomato can. The Bucs never lost their fight, but the game ended in a unanimous decision for L.A. The Raiders used two Tampa Bay fumbles and needed to go only 5 and 16 yards with them for their only touchdowns to beat the Bucs 27-20 in a penalty-marred game.

There were 25 penalties stepped off for 187 yards and two players were ejected in the game which lasted 3 1/2 hours, spilling so far over into 60 Minutes that local viewers missed the introductions ("Hi, I'm Andy Rooney"). The violence spilled over into the crowd of 40,532 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Fights broke out, creating some gang-tackling opportunities for the LAPD. "That was not a football game," Wyche said "That was a fight that we played for four quarters."

But one Tampa Bay player really took it on the chin. Linebacker Hardy Nickerson was ejected with 10 minutes remaining, after shoving an official during a fight with Raiders tackle Gerald Perry. Los Angeles guard Max Montoya also was ejected later in the game for fighting. Nickerson's actions could cost him a fine or possibly suspension, but he denied shoving the official. "The next thing I know I'm thrown out of the game," Nickerson said. "I don't remember shoving an official."

Despite all the flags, Wyche said there should've been more. "It was bizarre," Wyche said. "I've never seen a man have his helmet thrown 30 or 40 yards (as Bucs running back Mazio Royster did by the Raiders Nolan Harrison) and it's not called because the referee tells me it was after the play. I suppose after the whistle you've got a license as long as it's not an open wound."

There was plenty of salt rubbed in the Bucs' sores. They were forced to play without three other players injured during the game - guard Ian Beckles (knee), cornerback Martin Mayhew (hip) and safety Jerry Gray (groin). Despite all that, the Bucs defense set a club record by holding the Raiders to 17 yards rushing. They sacked quarterback Jeff Hostetler three times and did a fair job of trying to contain speedy wideouts James Jett and Rocket Ismail.

But while the Bucs defense was trading punches with the Raiders, the offense was beating itself. If it wasn't Craig Erickson being sacked five times, or Horace Copeland and Dave Moore dropping TD passes, or holding penalties wiping out spectacular catches by Courtney Hawkins, it was turnovers that killed the Bucs.

They erased a club-record 57-yard field goal by Michael Husted, 8-of-16 third down conversions and 295 yards passing by Erickson. They also prevented the Bucs from shedding the Westward No! image of a team that has won just once in 17 games in California and has lost 20 straight to AFC West teams. The loss also gave Tampa Bay (4-10) its 11th straight season of double-digit defeats. So what would have prompted Wyche to say this after the game? "I couldn't be prouder of that football team," Wyche said. "They've got absolutely no regrets."

Except, perhaps, about losing. But what was different about the Bucs on Sunday was how they could have packed it in and didn't. With just barely 11 minutes of the game gone, the Bucs found themselves trailing by two TDs. In fact, Erickson started things off badly when he was stripped of the ball while trying to pass by Greg Townsend and the ball was recovered by Chester McGlocklin at the Tampa Bay 5-yard line. One play later, Napoleon McCallum raced through a gaping hole for a 5-yard touchdown to give the Raiders a 14-0 lead.

The Raiders could have made it 21-0 had Terry McDaniel hung on to a sure interception that easily could have been returned for a touchdown. But the Bucs rebounded on the next play when running back Reggie Cobb scored his first of two touchdowns on a 5-yard run. Cobb, however, would give the Raiders what proved to be the clinching touchdown when he fumbled at his 16 in the fourth quarter. Hostetler did the honors with a 1-yard bootleg to up the Raiders' lead to 27-10. "The offense had two turnovers, but we had opportunities to force turnovers and didn't do it," Nickerson said. "I had a pass hit me on my forearm and we almost had another one that went through Milton Mack's hands. If we make those, maybe it's a different ballgame."

According to Wyche, the officials should have called a different ballgame. "They let the game get away early," Wyche said of the crew headed by Dick Hantak, which he later called one of the three best in the league. "It's unfair to either team, and it's a shame it happened that way. We were tougher than the other guys. They're the ones that lost their composure. I've never been around a team that had more composure under those circumstances in my life. Literally, every time something happened there was a fight. It was a dual match."

Or did Wyche mean duel match? Anyway, the Bucs can blame themselves for some of Sunday's melee because they took the fight to the Raiders. "The Raiders' mystique is the Raiders' dirty play," Bucs tackle Santana Dotson said. "We expected it coming in here."

Perhaps that's why Wyche inserted defensive back and special teams kamikaze Curtis Buckley at wide receiver on the game's first play. Buckley went in motion on a running play to Cobb and drilled safety Derrick Hoskins. "Curtis' job was to go down and block the safety, which he did," Wyche said. "Knocked the living crap out of him. The safety got up 2 1/2 seconds after the whistle had blown and knocked the living crap out of Curtis. That's a 15-yard personal foul. The official standing next to me said he saw it but that, `Your guy knocked him down first.' One of our goals was to go into the game and be the most intense football team in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."

It almost worked, too, except the Raiders have been at this fighting business before the Bucs were in training pants. And not every player had the heart for it. "I wasn't shoving anybody," Erickson said. "The last thing I want to do is shove Howie Long."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1993