Playoff berth, at least, can't be dropped
Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times, published 15 December 1997

Probably only Jimmy Hoffa has experienced a worse day in Giants Stadium. Tampa Bay got murdered Sunday. Or can we classify it a suicide? Watch out, NFL playoffs, here come the Bucs! Flying into the post-season with backup lights on. Like a hearse in reverse. Am I being too unkind? Pass the cheese! "Thanks, Green Bay." Where should we begin with the Jets-Bucs autopsy? I'm against picking on crippled guys, but a sore-ankle Trent Dilfer was a quarterbacking calamity. Tell me, Dr. Quincy, have the Bucs, even at their historical yuckiest, ever suffered through a 3-for-22 passing afternoon?

We must remind ourselves it's still an upbeat Tampa Bay season. First winning record in 15 years. Entering the playoffs, even if as Packers guests flooding through the back door. Whatever, for 60 agonizing minutes of a 31-0 debacle against New York's gang green, the Bucs in no way resembled a squad meriting post-Christmas opportunities, including seven Pro Bowl designates. They all knew.

"We flat-out embarrassed ourselves," said linebacker Hardy Nickerson, a Pro Bowl starter. "You can't have excuses this time of year. Our wheels totally fell off. We laid a big egg. Making the playoffs due to Green Bay beating Carolina does little to ease our lousy feeling over a pitiful performance against the Jets."

How about those Bucs not-so-special teams? What was it, a universal Jets birthday? Tampa Bay kept wishing them many happy returns. New York cornerback Otis Smith carried two interceptions back for touchdowns. Leon Johnson went 101 yards with a kickoff. In a sea of Bucs malfunctions, let's search for the crummiest efforts of all. That's easy. It is the continuing story of wretched production by Tampa Bay receivers. Their most frequent exclamation has become "Oops!" Sunday, Dilfer's leading receiver was Otis Smith.

Reidel Anthony hasn't caught a pass in three games. Even a veteran with renowned sure-handedness, Robbie Thomas, has dropsie fever. If there can be a turning point in a 31-0 demolition, it was a Sunday cough-up by Horace Copeland. Bucs stumbled through the first quarter and into the second but trailed by a mere 3-0. Dilfer at last delivered a most catchable football, to Copeland on a quick slant. Not only would High C muff on the catch, the grenade twanged sideways off his buttery. Smith was out there waiting, like a starving man who suddenly saw a flying pizza. From there it was an easy 45-yard sprint to the end zone. Jets were up 10-0. An unchangeable zero.

Even so, the Bucs had opportunities. Alshermond Singleton blocked a Jets punt. Dilfer's doldrums expanded with a ghastly throw that was again stolen by Smith, this one becoming a 51-yard touchdown return. Tampa Bay and its QB were dying for some Bucs receiver to make a splendid catch. To lift spirits. Instead, the next act was a wide-open Thomas with an oops. Back in summer, there was across-the-board high hope for the Bucs receiver corps. An overpaid menace, Alvin Harper, had been purged. Copeland was back after missing the 1996 season with an injury. High C figured to be a deep threat. But it hasn't come close to happening. Instead, he keeps becoming more of a puzzling underachiever.

Anthony was a rookie fresh from a pass-potent Florida Gators program. Terrific speed. Remember all those exotic catches of Danny Wuerffel throws? So far, as a pro, such heroics have been rare for Reidel. Charlie Williams is as disgusted and puzzled as anybody. He coaches Tampa Bay receivers. "What they get paid to do is catch footballs," the Tony Dungy assistant said. "They must create ways to make tough grabs, rather that finding ways to drop passes. "We're known as a running team, but in recent weeks there have been plenty of opportunities for my guys. No reason they shouldn't be delivering. Especially now, getting close to the playoffs. All the good receivers in the NFL do it."

Maybe this Bucs disintegration in Jersey was but a frightening aberration. Nah, that's too easy. Shortfall by Tampa Bay receivers has been happening for a while. We don't notice it so much when Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn are galloping for heavy yardage, or when Dilfer is making smashing plays on third downs.

Sunday it was as noticeable as a wart on a pretty nose. Alstott was too injured to play. There was too much of a load for Dunn to tote. Dilfer suffered as Tampa Bay went 0-for-13 on third downs. "Everybody is ticked off," Nickerson said. "I promise we'll bounce back. We'll spend the extra time in meeting rooms and on practice fields. You will see a much better football team next Sunday against the Chicago Bears."

Can't get any worse.