MOVING ON UP
Win, win, win. For the first time in 12 years, the Tampa Bay Bucs can say that without interruption. Nobody knows for sure if it's too little, too late for this team or this franchise, but Tampa Bay is starting to put something together - namely an honest-to-goodness winning streak. Since having their backs shoved against the wall by a 2-9 start, the Bucs have responded with back-to-back-to-back wins for the first time since 1982.
The latest chapter in Tampa Bay's late-season success story came Sunday in a 24-14 win over the Los Angeles Rams before a season-low crowd of 34,150.
It was (recent) business as usual at Tampa Stadium for the Bucs: rookie tailback Errict Rhett, celebrating his 24th birthday, logged another 100-yard game (119 on 31 carries); the offensive line continued to be a two-way threat with sturdy run- and pass-blocking; and the suddenly rejuvenated defense shut down another opposing ground game (63 yards).
But there were surprises, too. First and foremost was the career-day performance of reserve receiver Charles Wilson. Entering the game when starter Courtney Hawkins strained a knee ligament on a first-quarter punt return, Wilson responded with four catches for 176 yards, including the Bucs' first and last touchdowns on receptions of 71 and 44 yards.
The Bucs were officially eliminated from the NFL playoff hunt Sunday, but Tampa Bay accomplished all of the following against the Rams:
Its first three-game winning streak since beating Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago, all at home, to qualify for the playoffs at the close of the strike-abbreviated 1982 season.
At 5-9, the Bucs equaled Sam Wyche's win total in each of his two previous seasons with Tampa Bay, claiming back-to-back home wins for the first time since Wyche's opening two games in 1992.
For the third week in a row, the Bucs staved off the dubious doubleheader of recording an NFL-record 12th consecutive double-digit loss season, and handing Wyche his 100th career loss in the NFL (including playoffs).
"We've arrived," said Wyche, still dripping from his second consecutive post-game drenching. "We're not that far away anymore. That's gone. Those were the good old days. We're finding out not that we're able to win a game, but that we were able to play like winners. We can be a winning team. We've done the best we could. And we'd like to keep on doing it. But I don't have that crystal ball right now."
Ironically, the Bucs are coming on just as talk of their taking off for greener pastures is on the rise. With both the Rams and the Bucs facing rather uncertain futures in their current cities, the game was dubbed the "Relocation Bowl."
Even Wyche, summarizing the significance of the win in his post-game comments, acknowledged that the Bucs' improvement might not matter much in terms of solidifying either his or the franchise's future.
"The tragedy of this franchise right now is the team's going to be sold, and there's probably going to be a new coach. (But) the team will be far ahead of where we were three years ago. It's unfortunate, but this might be the next-to-last game ever played in this stadium by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And it's a shame because local owners are looking up there and they're saying, `Hey, there's nobody here.' "
The fans who did turn out on a blustery 70-degree day were treated to scoreless first and third quarters, wacky second and fourth quarters, and this bit of Bucs history: Tampa Bay's first win over a California team since a victory at San Francisco in 1980 (an 0-21 streak).
"We just have an intangible little something going on in that locker room now," Wyche said. "We enter every game feeling like it's going to happen for us. Somebody's going to make a big play, somebody's going to make a saving tackle, and we're going to win that football game."
Against the Rams, who dropped their fifth straight to fall to 4-10, the biggest plays were turned in by Wilson, the fifth-year pro. Wilson produced Tampa Bay's first 100-yard receiving day of the season and the third-biggest receiving yardage total in team history. After a scoreless first quarter, Wilson helped stake the Bucs to a lead they never lost, setting up a 20-yard Michael Husted field goal with a 53-yard catch-and-run early in the second quarter. Wilson, who now leads the Bucs in receiving yards with 544, did even better the next time he touched the ball, taking a Craig Erickson pass 71 yards for a score.
The touchdown was the second-longest reception of Wilson's career and the longest completion of Erickson's career, and it put Tampa Bay up 10-0 with 9:03 left in the half.
"Am I surprised (I got deep)? No, I'm not surprised," Wilson said. "I can go deep on anybody. I feel like I'm a productive player. I feel like I can make something happen, which I proved today."
After the Rams drove 77 yards on seven plays, cutting the Bucs' lead to 10-7 on a 22-yard pass from quarterback Chris Chandler to tight end Troy Drayton, the Bucs rebuilt their 10-point lead with the help of the men in the striped shirts. In the game's wildest stretch, Tampa Bay went 80 yards on 10 plays, capping it with an 8-yard Rhett touchdown run. Forty-three of those yards were earned by the Bucs and 37 were awarded them as the result of taunting and unnecessary roughness penalties against Rams linebackers Shane Conlan and Roman Phifer. "I told them (his players) enough is enough," Rams coach Chuck Knox said. "That's not our kind of football. But when it goes wrong, it goes wrong."
Just as they did last week against Washington, the Bucs held a huge statistical advantage at the half: 235 to 90 in total yards, 14 to 7 in first downs, and 19:48 to 10:12 in time of possession. But unlike last week, when Tampa Bay still managed to trail the Redskins 21-17, this time the Bucs' dominance at least resulted in a 17-7 lead.
The Rams' only third-quarter threat ended when Chandler and Bettis botched a handoff at the Bucs' 37, resulting in a Lonnie Marts fumble recovery. But Los Angeles made it a game at 17-14 on its first drive of the fourth quarter, getting a 12-yard touchdown pass from Chandler to receiver Jessie Hester with 12:42 remaining.
But Tampa Bay had two more big plays: first a Charles McRae block of a potential game-tying 48-yard field-goal attempt with 1:51 remaining, and then the back-breaking 44-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Wilson with 1:34 to go. On the play, Erickson audibled the third-and-4 call, outmaneuvering the Rams, who had nearly everyone at the line expecting the run. "A lot of times we've had the chance to really put teams away and we couldn't do it," Wilson said. "It felt really good to finally put a team away when we needed to. We just sit back and say, `Why couldn't we do this in the beginning of the year?' "
Don Banks, The St.Petersburg Times 1994