Bucs face big reality check
They took the merry out of Christmas. It'll be okay, if the next Bucs act isn't to take the happy out of New Year. Tampa Bay's soaring heroes came to California with six consecutive wins, hoping for seventh heaven. Instead, the Bucs took a miserable, embarrassing, hellish 45-0 stumble into The Black Hole. Nightmare on the Nimitz Freeway.

Here, in the Al Davis cradle of intimidation, the Raiders treated the Bucs like sissies at a biker rally. Since their 1960 birth, Oakland's blackshirts have pro football's winningest percentage, but it's been 32 years since they ruled by a more lopsided score. Oh, the history Tampa Bay's franchise, known for considerable calamities in its two dozen seasons, with a sagging all- time record of 127-242-1, managed to turn this Sunday of sweet opportunity into the most wicked of Bucs beatings. Ever!

Good stuff was breaking across America for the Bucs. Losses by fellow NFC contenders Detroit, Dallas and Washington. Glory was there for the taking against a 6-7 opponent from Oakland. Tampa Bay could've embraced a two-game Central Division lead. Instead, the Bucs seized up. Shaun King finally had the uncertain, harassed, error-prone look of a rookie quarterback.

On his first play, young No. 10 was sacked for an 11-yard loss. Things never really improved. Around the young fellow, everything crumbled. King had another Keystone Kops pass attempt, his second in two Sundays, the football fumbling backward from his hand like a greased ham. "Maybe I've got to put some sticky stuff on my palm," he said.

This time, the flub was scooped by Oakland defensive end Lance Johnstone and returned 13 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Bucs horrors would be endless. "We embarrassed ourselves," safety John Lynch said. "Oakland beat us in every possible way. Our errors kept compounding. We took a major drubbing."

Tampa Bay's defense, ranked as the NFL's second best, inexplicably had the Coliseum appearance of the worst. "It's so absurd, it was almost comical," defensive tackle Brad Culpepper said. "Oakland was more physical. Played smarter. Executed better. They had an answer for everything we tried. We got smeared. "If it had to happen, it's better to get such a rotten performance out of the way. Now, we can go home, work hard getting ready for Green Bay, while reading no more press clippings that say how well we've been doing. Our challenges are obvious."

Oh, how they were sobered. Bucs got outrushed 262-34. Mike Alstott averaged 0.9 yards per carry. Worst yet, the All-Pro fullback had another devastating fumble, his sixth odious oops of 1999. The A-Train became a train wreck. "I have nothing to say," Alstott said, bolting from the Tampa Bay dressing room the moment reporters were admitted post- debacle. "You saw it all."

Dressed in civies but barefooted, he had shoes in hand. Didn't drop either one. Walking among the clobbered Bucs, outsiders could hear no cursing. Saw no flinging of helmets to the floor. It was a scene deeply disappointed, but not funereal. So startling was the Tampa Bay crash after its 6-0 wonderworks, there literally were no words to explain. It was like Tom Cruise or Denzel Washington having to explain suddenly turning ugly. Or the Three Tenors groping to explain how it feels to not be able to hit the high notes.

Bucs were not at all prepared to talk about a 45-0 strangulation. Until now, the most one-sided Bucs failure was a 42- 0 licking in 1976 at Pittsburgh. Lucky me, I was there to write about that one, too. But the circumstances were monumentally different. Those were magnificent Steelers who would win four Super Bowls in six seasons. Tampa Bay's quarterback was Steve Spurrier. Those were near- hopeless Bucs, an expansion bunch, mega-miles from respectability much less being a contender. Pittsburgh could've won 142-0. It was that mismatched.

But, unlike Sunday against the Raiders, you knew it going in. Chuck Noll was a charitable enemy coach. That loss dropped the Bucs' to 0-13, headed for an 0-14 season and an 0-26 franchise beginning. This time, the eventual outcome can be far happier. Everything will be okay for the Bucs if they rebound to handle Green Bay Sunday in Tampa, then go to Chicago and outscore the Bears on Jan. 2. If. If. If.

No, the Bucs are not eager to risk their post- season fate in 7 degrees at Soldier Field, depending on a warm and fuzzy performance by a kid quarterback from St. Petersburg who will be playing in weather colder than he has ever known. Good chance of it. Tony Dungy termed his guys as "a little bit off." Which is like NASA saying its probe to Mars got a little bit lost. Difference is, the Bucs have a chance to find themselves

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1999