Vinny's late comeback falls short
Michelle Kaufman, The St.Petersburg Times, published 1988

Don't score in the first quarter, get fired up at halftime, rally in the fourth quarter and come up short. Sound familiar? It should. It's the way the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-5) have gone about four of their losses this season, most recently a 35-31 heartbreaker against the Indianapolis Colts (2-5) Sunday at the Hoosier Dome.

The Colts had buried the Bucs in a 35-10 ditch the first three quarters, and had all but engraved the tombstone when Vinny Testaverde and the Tampa Bay offense came alive. Testaverde completed nine of 15 passes for 226 yards in the final quarter to pave the way for 21 quick points. Problem was, the Bucs needed 26 points. “Every week we keep saying we ran out of time, well I'm tired of that,” said Testaverde, whose 469 yards total passing yards Sunday were second-most in Bucs history (Doug Williams threw for 486 at Minnesota in 1980) and second-most ever thrown against the Colts. “If we played better in the first half, we wouldn't have to worry about running out of time. We haven't lost a fourth quarter all year, but that doesn't help us in the end.”

The Bucs have lost their last four games by a total of 15 points. Take away first quarters (in which the Bucs have been shut out 71-0), and they'd be 6-1. Each close loss has made coach Ray Perkins' teeth grit a little harder. “You have to give Indianapolis credit, especially in the first half, they kicked the sh-- out of us,” the coach said. “They wanted it more than we did the first half. We fought back, but that's no consolation. We got our a-- handed to us. We made some really stupid mistakes, like penalties, and we're not a good enough football team to do that and win against any team in the NFL.”

Penalties killed the Bucs in the first three quarters. Example: The Colts had third-and-4 from the Bucs 11, but it became first-and-goal from the 6 when defensive end Harry Swayne jumped offside. Indianapolis went ahead 7-0 on Eric Dickerson's 1-yard run two plays later.

Example: Back-to-back penalties against John Cannon and Mark Robinson gave the Colts an easy first down to get their second scoring drive rolling. Example: For the Bucs' offense, third-and-13 from the Colts' 27 turned into third-and-28 from the 42 following a holding call against Paul Gruber and a motion penalty against Rob Taylor. The Bucs ended up punting.

Get the idea? In all, the Bucs were penalized five times after gains for a loss of 45 yards. “We just have to concentrate more,” said Gruber, who was called twice for holding and once for jumping offside. “I played really poorly. I got myself into some tough situations. Fundamentally I broke down.”

Tight end Ron Hall, who had the best day of his career with seven catches for 121 yards, said, “It's usually not the other team killing us, it's ourselves. When we don't move the ball it's not because the defense is stopping us, it's because we have third-and-19 after a holding penalty or something. It's just little breakdowns here and there.”

Despite the mistakes, the Bucs' offense was more productive than it's been all year. Tampa Bay gained 483 yards total offense and made 24 first downs, both season highs. Bruce Hill caught seven passes for 162 yards, Mark Carrier had 61 yards on four catches, Frank Pillow had two catches for 55 yards, and Don Smith had three for 49. Smith, who was reactivated Friday after missing seven weeks with a knee injury, also accounted for 15 of the Bucs' 39 rushing yards. “We've shown we can move the ball when we have to,” Hall said. “We just have to do it when there's no pressure on us.”

The Bucs had an opportunity to score early, after linebacker Eugene Marve picked off a Chris Chandler pass and placed it on the Colts' 33. But Indianapolis had the ball back a minute later. A Colts linebacker got in Carrier's way as he darted toward Testaverde's pass, and former Buc cornerback Mike Prior came up with an interception. The Colts' first touchdown was primarily the doing of quarterback Chris Chandler and receiver Bill Brooks. Brooks caught passes of 26, 24, and 12 yards before Swayne's penalty. He'd go on to catch seven for 139 yards by the end of the afternoon. Donald Igwebuike kicked a 39-yard field goal to make it 7-3 two minutes into the second quarter.

Dickerson scampered through the middle of the pass-prevent Bucs defense on third-and-10 for a 27-yard touchdown about six minutes later. It was his 10th career touchdown against the Bucs. He gained 80 yards on 27 carries Sunday, his lowest ever against Tampa Bay. In three of four previous meetings, he had rushed for 190 yards or more. The Bucs struck back with a 74-yard drive in which Testaverde completed six of seven passes. Hill caught the 10-yard touchdown pass. But Indianapolis scored three unanswered touchdowns to open up the 35-10 lead. Chandler ran one in from 2 yards, Brooks won a jump-ball in the endzone over Buc cornerback Ricky Reynolds for a 28-yard touchdown, and Eugene Daniel intercepted a Testaverde pass and returned it 41 yards for the final Colt score.

That's when the Bucs woke up. Testaverde completed passes of 18, 16 and 24 yards before Smith ran in from the 5 to make it 35-17 less than a minute into the fourth quarter. Reynolds intercepted a pass intended for Brooks, and the Bucs moved 87 yards on three Testaverde passes of 37, 34, and 16 yards to scare the Colts at 35-24. Hill made the touchdown reception with eight minutes left to play.

On the first play of the next drive, the chant “defense, defense” emerged from the highest rafters of the dome. There, in section 332, were about 50 Bucs boosters, their banner waving below them. The rest of the 53,135 fans booed as the Colts managed just 16 yards. Tampa Bay got the ball back with 5:18 to go. Testaverde hit Carrier for 22 yards on third-and-20, then Pillow for 14, and Hill for 30. Lars Tate, the team's designated diver, leaped in from the 1-yard line to close the gap to 35-31 with 3:19 to go. The Colts recovered the Bucs' onside kick, but gained just 4 yards and punted.

The Buc took over with 1:51 on the clock, and Testaverde immediately found Pillow for 31 yards. A long pass to Stephen Starring was ruled incomplete because he had one foot out of bounds. The final hope lay in a pass to Hill on fourth-and-2 from the Colts' 43. But former Buc John Holt got in the way (Hill and others said he interfered), and Indianapolis took over with 56 seconds remaining. “I know it was pass interference,” Hill said. “He was all over me, but it was such a crucial play and it's easier for the ref not to call it.”

In the end, despite the excitement, it was still a loss. It hurt the Bucs no less than any of their other four. “It's been the same story since the second game,” said linebacker Kevin Murphy. “We spot a team 10 or 14 points, then play catch-up. It's like we want to see how far we can get behind, and then we pick it up a notch or two and just get close.”