Real Bucs were just perfect
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 14 October 1996

If ever there were a man for his team, it is Robb Thomas. Like his team, his history has not been much. He has spent a lot of years in the league, but few that you would particularly notice. He has been discarded and disregarded, written off as small and ordinary, and the moments between his touchdowns have seemed eternal. On those rare moments of success, the reaction across the nation has been "Oh, is he still around?" Tell me. Is this guy the perfect Tampa Bay Buc, or what?

Sunday, he was. This day, you could suggest Thomas was the Bucs, and it would not be an insult. This day, he was the perfect understudy awaiting his chance. This day, he was everything that is not Alvin Harper, a hungry and eager performer who made key plays in a big victory and was grateful for the chance. He scored twice, matching five years worth of total. And as his frustrations melted away, so did his team's.

They have won exactly one game. Even after the Bucs beat the Vikings 24-13, they remain 1-5, and no one is measuring anyone for rings. But victory grants a fresh perspective. A new look. For the Bucs. For Thomas. For the rest of an offense that finally moved forward after going nowhere for so long. If ever there were a man for his team, it is Mike Alstott.

Like his team, he has been marked and battered from misuse, the purple splotch on his forehead clashing harshly with the fiery strawberry across his throat. There are times he seems slow, unable to go as fast as the hole in front of him. He is young, and he hasn't accomplished much.

On this day, however, what Alstott represented was sheer effort, struggling forward despite the burden upon his back. The play came early in the fourth, when Alstott took a short pass and turned upfield. He was hit on the 6-yard line, Robert Griffith bouncing off like a small car grazing a pickup. Jeff Brady jumped on his back, and still Alstott did not stop. He surged forward, straining, and leapt toward the pylon. Touchdown. Later, he would say it was not about thinking. It was about reacting. It was about wanting more. "I want to be an impact player," he said. "I don't want to be just a blocking back."

If ever there were a man for his team, it is Trent Dilfer. Like his team, he has represented failure until the fans have cried, "Enough." He has seemed like another broken promise, better for his opposition than for his teammates with his bad decisions and his sloppy passes.

On this day, however, he once again looked like a player who could be somebody. Three touchdown passes, zero interceptions. He threw 35 and completed 22. Another half a dozen or so could have been. He looked poised, he threw fastballs, and he made the right decisions. It is frustrating to watch a young quarterback go through ups and downs. With Dilfer, however, there were precious few ups to fall back on, and it became increasingly difficult to believe he would become something special. After this game, it is a little easier.

If ever there were a man for his team, it is Paul Gruber. Like his team, he has spent a lot of disappointing days in this stadium. He has suffered as much as those who watch. He has shown up, week after week, hoping each game would be the one where he would finally reach the end of the desert. This Sunday, however, he sat at his locker, and he smiled. "Every win in this league is something to cherish," he said.

It is always hard to say how badly a team misses an offensive lineman, but in Gruber's case, it is safe to say "desperately." With him in there against a fierce pass rush Sunday, the line looked solid, cohesive. Dilfer had more time in the pocket to read coverages. Receivers had more time to run patterns. And Michael Husted got to equal a season's worth of extra points. There was no absolution here. No "redemption," as someone asked offensive coordinator Mike Shula. This was a small step. The consolation is that it was in the proper direction. And that it allows you to look at this offense again from a different angle. From here, it looks a little better.

You win, and the doubts fade, just a bit. It is easier to believe in Tony Dungy, and Shula, and in the reason that thousands of fans remain resilient enough to show up. It is easier to believe in Warren Sapp, splitting a double team to knock a last chance out of Warren Moon's hands, or Chidi Ahanotu, flying through the line for a sack. This Sunday, the team was not too small or too slow or too sloppy. It was not a team scarred by false promise and failed performance. It was hungry and smart. This Sunday, the perfect Tampa Bay Buc was pretty close to perfect. And if the Bucs earned a second look, all you can do is hope to see it again.