Road to better Bucs has four tough stops
This season's 5-11 Bucs are a lot better than Tampa Bay's disgusting 5-11 losers of a year ago. If you'll swallow that, I'll provide the chaser. It's my "1994 Home-Team Improvement Scheme." Friendly suggestions meant to help the long-bedeviled NFL locals, so they won't have to explain still another 5-11 season next January. As you know, playoffs are promised.

If coach Sam Wyche, owner Hugh Culverhouse and Bucs personnel manipulator Rich McKay are serious about curing the 11-defeats-a-year disease, highest priorities must be (1) free safety, (2) running back, (3) offensive lineman, (4) tight end. But first, let's talk quarterback.

Craig Erickson may or may not mature into playoff quality. I'm not sure. Wyche can't be sure. It depends on which videotapes you assess, from which quarter. Tampa Bay's passer was 9-for-23 dreadful during Sunday's first half against San Diego. Erickson seemed unfit even for a 5-11 franchise. But eventually, he went on a 9-for-10 sizzle streak, and Tampa Stadium's energized 35,587 consumers were cheering a kid who seemed entirely capable of becoming an 11-5 QB. Verdict? How can anybody know?

Just when you think Erickson is cooking on high heat, throwing footballs with accuracy and intelligence, leading Tampa Bay's offense with a gifted hand, the old Miami Hurricanes hero lapses into sputters, stumbles and uncertainties. Conversely, when Craig is mired in one of his errant flurries, throwing interceptions and making shaky judgments, and I'm contemplating giving up on No. 7 as "QB of the Bucs' future," he rebounds to look more like Joe Montana and less like Joe Blow.

The jury remains in session. "From the beginning of this season until now," Wyche said, "Craig has shown tremendous improvement." Result is, the Bucs' coach said, "We're not going after a quarterback. Right now, I feel comfortable with Erickson."

Translated, that means that the Bucs - who with Sunday's 11th loss earned the sixth pick in April's college draft - will have little shot at the hottest QB possibilities, expected to be Trent Dilfer of Fresno State and Heath Shuler of Tennessee. Rather than spend the Bucs' No. 1 choice on the third-best NCAA quarterback, Wyche prefers to bank on Erickson.

Now back to my 1-2-3-4 improvement plan. If the Bucs triumvirate of Wyche-Culverhouse-McKay, along with chief scout Jerry Angelo, can go 4-for-4 on these needs, a reversal from 5-11 to playoff contender really is reachable. It'll take brains, and cost money.

Regarding the first priority - free safety - Tampa Bay has little chance of filling this glaring need through the draft. Free-agency is the sensible route to find a 200-pounder with gazelle speed and Schwarzenegger power. A big hitter with coverage skills who can have the impact in the Bucs' secondary that 1993 free-agent Hardy Nickerson has had as a Pro Bowl linebacker.

Second priority - running back - will be a complicated mix. Marshall Faulk would be perfect. A tailback with game-breaker dash plus sufficient strength to run between the tackles. But Faulk, too, will be gone when the Bucs draft sixth. It's complex for Tampa Bay because Reggie Cobb, an admirable 1,000-yard runner for two seasons, is now a restricted free agent. He would cost the Bucs more than $2-million a year. I hope they sign Cobb. He's worth it. He's earned it.

But whether Reggie is around next season or not, Tampa Bay needs to import a runner with blurring speed. A threat to break an occasional 60-yard touchdown. If Cobb signs, the Bucs should work hard in rounds 2-3-4 of the draft to find a high-carat diamond, even if the rookie shows up needing some polish.

Let's move to the third personnel challenge - offensive line - because the Bucs are nagged by repeated injuries to guard Ian Beckles, the age of a pair of 33-year-olds, guard Bruce Reimers and tackle Rob Taylor, plus the sporadic development of G-T Charles McRae.

Fourth challenge - tight end - involves a mandatory search for a swift, agile, sure-handed husky of 250 pounds or thereabouts who can take over for Ron Hall. At 30, he's a beat-up veteran of seven NFL seasons who suffers from waning athleticism and effectiveness. Tampa Bay . . . four players away.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1994