Bucs show their worth
Jason Cole, The Miami Sun Sentinel, published 22 September 1997

Well Jimmy, maybe you should have taken that interview after all. Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, who leveraged his way into the Dolphins' job in 1996 by threatening to interview with Tampa Bay, watched helplessly as the up-and-coming Buccaneers dispatched the Dolphins 31-21 with relative ease Sunday night at Houlihan's Stadium.

With the victory, the Buccaneers improved to 4-0 for the first time since 1979, the year they made the NFC Championship Game. This game was met with nearly the same excitement as that long-ago shot at the Super Bowl. Halftime fireworks and a sellout crowd decked in the Bucs' new colors. Much of the crowd remained long after the end to give the Bucs a standing ovation. As for Johnson, his message to his team was this: Forget about it. ``I'm going to tell the coaches and the guys to put this away for two days and come back on Wednesday,'' Johnson said. The players have today and Tuesday off before getting a bye.

The outlook could have been different for Johnson if he hadn't been so enamored with the Dolphins, who fell to 2-2. After taking the Dolphins' job, Johnson added that he wanted it because he preferred quarterback Dan Marino to Tampa Bay's Trent Dilfer. Marino did play well enough to give the Dolphins hope that he is back on the upswing after a rough first three games. Marino completed 24 of 37 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns.

But Dilfer, with the help of a superior running game, went Marino a few steps better. He also got plenty of redemption against Johnson, for whom Dilfer at one time had plenty of contempt. Beyond the Marino reference, Dilfer was upset by several comments made when Johnson was a television commentator. The Dolphins maintained that the key was the running game. ``We have a small defense and they wore us down,'' Johnson said. ``If a team gets ahead of us, we've got a lot of problems, and they got ahead of us tonight.''

``Anybody could play with poise if you were running the ball the way they were,'' cornerback Terrell Buckley said.

Dilfer threw for a career-high four touchdown passes, giving him eight on the year against one interception. Dilfer completed 18 of 24 passes for 241 yards, including a steller 13 of 15 in the first half. Tampa Bay had five passing plays of 20 yards or longer, not including a 41-yard pass interference call against Buckley. Dilfer was able to deliver one big play after another with the help of the running of fullback Mike Alstott (the Bucs had 109 yards on 32 carries) and the receiving of rookie running back Warrick Dunn, who had six catches for 106 yards. That included a back-breaking 58-yard touchdown on a dump pass on third-and-29 in the third quarter. The first half was made even more remarkable when Dilfer returned after missing only one play with a bruised knee.

Dilfer appeared to be badly hurt when defensive lineman Shane Burton fell on Dilfer's left knee on a pass play. Dilfer hobbled to the sideline, Steve Walsh taking his place. But after running only one play, Walsh headed back to the bench, Dilfer trotting back to the field to a thunderous applause. ``I was scared it was a [Mark) Brunell-type hit,'' Dilfer said, referring to the ligament-damaging hit the Jacksonville quarterback received in the exhibition season. ``I felt a very sharp pain, but I didn't hear the pop. . . . I told myself when I got to the sideline that it wasn't going to hurt and eventually it didn't.''

The Buccaneers broke to a 14-0 lead in the first half on two nicely executed drives that featured big plays to Dunn. Both drives finished with short touchdowns to Alstott, who is quickly developing into the best all-around fullback in the NFL. Dilfer threw to the uncovered Alstott for scores of 3 yards and 1 yard after making nice play-action fakes. On the first drive, Dunn caught a short pass from Dilfer on third-and-3 and turned it into a 21-yard gain. On the second drive, the Buccaneers were in a second-and-11 and linebacker Derrick Rodgers had an open shot at Dilfer for a sack. Somehow Dilfer escaped and threw to Dunn for a 23-yard gain.

Dilfer was able to escape pressure throughout the game, frustrating Johnson. ``This is two weeks in a row we can't get to the quarterback,'' Johnson said, referring to the seven missed sacks the Dolphins had against Green Bay's Brett Favre in the previous game. Marino completed only one of his first nine passes as the receiving corps rarely could provide him with an open receiver. But Marino completed his final six passes of the first half, including four to McDuffie.

That touchdown did little to stem the tide. In the second half, the Buccaneers drove to the Dolphins' 4 on their first possession to set up a field goal for a 17-7 lead. Tampa Bay again drove with the running of Alstott, who finished with 95 yards on 18 carries that were all between the tackles. That running game again established the play-action for Dilfer. On first down at the Dolphins' 38, Dilfer faked, catching safety Corey Harris cheating on the run.

Rookie wide receiver Reidel Anthony ran a fly route to the end zone and Harris was never able to make up the ground against the speedy Anthony. That made the score 24-7 and nearly put the Dolphins out of their misery. The Dolphins responded, which is news in itself. Marino drove the Dolphins 71 yards, capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by Karim Abdul-Jabbar. At 24-14, the Bucs were poised for the biggest play of the game. Dilfer made one of his few mistakes when he was called for intentional grounding to set up the third-and-29. ``Is that what it was?'' Dilfer said when asked about the down and distance situation. The Dolphins appeared more mystified and Dunn went untouched for the score.