Bucs may have eased past corner
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 18 November 1996

This is when they are at their most dangerous. They look at you and wink, and they tease, and they flirt, and they dare you to believe one more time. They are tough on hope, these Tampa Bay Bucs. Essentially, having faith in them includes snake-handling because eventually they are going to bite you. History says so.

After a game such as this, however, when the Bucs stepped over so much of their own baggage and survived so many of their own blunders, something seems to be different. This time, perhaps they are not just looking inviting as they stand on the corner. This time, perhaps they have turned it.

It is not only that the Bucs won a football game Sunday. That doesn't happen enough, but it does happen. It is not only that they won their second in a row, against a good team, in a state that traditionally turns their locker room into one more serving of California whine. It is not that they fell behind 14-0 before roaring back for a 25-17 victory.

The reason for optimism is the way the Bucs won. It is the way they are playing and the degree to which they are improving. Say it with caution, if you wish, acknowledge it is too early to decide for certain, but something does seem to be different about this bunch of Bucs.

What other Bucs team could have won this game? After being behind by two touchdowns? In a state where the team was 1-19 lifetime? While making enough mistakes that would have made past Bucs teams start packing up the equipment in the third period?

A team wins a game such as this, outscoring its opponent 25-3 after a bad start, and maybe it is more than a victory. Maybe it is a sign things have changed. Maybe someone needs drop a marker to remember it by. "I told the team, just maybe we have turned the corner," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "We just might. Maybe five games from now, this is the game we look back at that was the point where things changed for us."

Does this mean the Bucs have conquered all of their demons? Of course not. There still are holes in the talent. There still were enough mistakes to drive you batty. Marvin Marshall fumbled a punt. Trent Dilfer threw an interception while trying to throw a ball away and fumbled inside the 20. Warren Sapp was called for a roughing-the-passer penalty. Melvin Johnson blew an open-field tackle that gave the Chargers a 67-yard touchdown. Michael Husted missed a 33-yard field goal. The Bucs scored only two touchdowns on nine trips into the red zone.

Through it all, however, the Bucs remained controlled, confident, calm. This is their biggest improvement. Adversity no longer seems to frighten them. Not a bad play or a bad spot or a bad history. "In the past, we used to crumble at adversity," said Dilfer, the most improved player in the NFL. "But a team has to be forged like metal, so it doesn't crumble like glass."

A reality check here. The Bucs have won only two straight; they are 3-8. This is not a powerhouse. More and more, however, this looks like players growing into a program. And if the Bucs ever are going to blossom, a game such as this one will be the first indication. And if California strikes you as an awfully wide corner to turn, consider the length of this franchise's journey. "I think we might look back at this game and put an asterisk by it," said linebacker Hardy Nickerson. "Every young team that is growing has a game where it turns things around. This one might have been ours."

It might have been. The thing you like about this team is that its improvement from week to week is obvious. Who is the last Bucs player you can remember improving? When was the last Bucs team that showed this kind of promise? When was the last Bucs team that played with this kind of confidence? "The tide is turning," said defensive end Chidi Ahanotu. "We've been talking about a new day. We're getting there."

Maybe they are. Maybe this will be remembered as the day, and the game, it finally started to happen.