Bucs repeat '92 showing
A lot of things come in twos: Noah's pets. The Doublemint twins. Five-and-11 football records in Tampa Bay. But not Bucs victories. Entering Sunday's game against San Diego, the Bucs were trying to post back-to-back wins for the first time this season and leave a warm, fuzzy feeling in their bellies for the long off-season. But that deuce is still on the loose.

After Tampa Bay rallied to take the lead midway in the fourth quarter, Chargers safety Darrien Gordon trapped a deflected pass from quarterback Craig Erickson that was ruled an interception to set up the clinching touchdown in San Diego's 32-17 win over the Bucs in the season finale. The disputed play spoiled what had been another gallant comeback that punctuated the second half of the season for Tampa Bay.

But schizophrenic play by the offense behind Erickson, a defense that was easy prey for Pro Bowl receiver Anthony Miller and a bad whistle were too much for the Bucs to overcome. "We're going to hear people that second-guess now," Sam Wychesaid. "But this team feels good about itself. If we'd been playing someone that wasn't playing well at the end of the season and lost like that, that's a measure of a different sort. We lost the last game of the year, but it could've gone either way."

The victory avoided a losing season for the Chargers (8-8), who narrowly missed the playoffs and routed Miami six days ago. Tampa Bay was trying to finish the second half of the season 4-4 and put teeth behind Wyche's guarantee of a playoff appearance next year. Instead it merely locked up the sixth pick in the NFL draft in April and a fifth-place schedule that includes other cellar dwellers like Seattle, Washington (twice), the Rams and Indianapolis. "I congratulated our team on having a good year," Wyche said. "Sometimes people who don't understand sports wonder what the hell we're talking about. But if you've been in the trenches as long as we have, you walk away either having a good year or a bad year. You walk away with a good record or a bad record. They don't always coincide."

Sunday the Bucs overcame a 13-3 deficit and a shaky start by Erickson, who was 9-of-23 passing for 94 yards in the first half and was intercepted to set up the second of four John Carney field goals. But Erickson caught fire in the second half, directing the Bucs to a pair of touchdowns. He hooked up with rookie Lamar Thomas in the back of the end zone for a 20-yard TD, then gave the Bucs a 17-16 lead with 8:26 left in the game by lofting a 42-yard touchdown pass to Courtney Hawkins on a dead rollout.

Erickson hit on nine of his first 10 passes in the second half and finished the game 21-of-41 for 272 yards and two TDs. His primary targets were rookie Horace Copeland (7 catches, 101 yards) and Courtney Hawkins (6 catches, 98 yards, 1 TD), who helped the Bucs convert 7 of 15 third-down situations. But it was the disputed interception by Gordon that turned the game around. Even Gordon had trouble keeping a straight face when asked about the play. "It touched the ground, but I had my hands around it," Gordon said. "It was an interception. Everybody knows the refs don't make mistakes."

After the Chargers regained the lead 19-17 on Carney's fourth field goal, the Bucs faced first and 15 at their 23 with just under five minutes left. Then Erickson's pass bounced off the hands of tight end Ron Hall and was apparently trapped by Gordon. But field judge Bobby Skelton ruled it an interception and awarded the ball to the Chargers at the Tampa Bay 35. Six plays later, San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries floated a 12-yard TD pass to tight end Duane Young to put the game out of reach.

Wyche went ballistic about the interception call. "It's unfortunate Mr. Skelton got paid to watch the one-hop bounce to them . . . and the score is 19-17 and we've got a chance to win one whale of a ballgame," Wyche said. "A turnover like that should've never ever been. The teams should decide the games. They should not be decided on plays like that. Now we lost 32-17, so we're sour grapes."

Not lost on Wyche was the fact Hall, a free agent, let the ball bounce off his hands. "We dropped some passes, including the one that should've fallen harmlessly to the ground that was ruled an interception," Wyche said.

Hall's future with Tampa Bay is in doubt, along with running back Reggie Cobb, cornerback Ricky Reynolds and linebacker Broderick Thomas, who had four tackles and snuffed out a fake field goal Sunday. "I want to be part of the solution, I don't want to be part of the problem," Thomas said. "I can play the game. I'd like to stay, but it's not in my hands. If it were up to me, I'd be here."

Tackle Rob Taylor, who's been with the team since 1986, said there is reason to expect more from the Bucs in '94. "I don't want to make it sound like I think we've had a great year," Taylor said. "But you've got to start somewhere. It's been good to play some of these teams and play them strong. Going into the off-season this time of year is better than it's ever been since I've been here."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1994