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Bengals sharing woes of old Bucs

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 30, 2002

CINCINNATI -- The Bucs looked pretty good, not great. And thank goodness for it.

They struggled, and they misfired, and they staggered to an ugly win. And that's not all bad.

The offense still hurts your eyes to watch. The running game looks like 11 men slogging through deep mud. The most important part of Brad Johnson's passing game is a safe landing. Feel free to cheer.

Hey, things could be worse.

The Bucs could be the Bengals.

Sunday was Thank-Goodness-for-Small-Favors day at the ballyard. As homely as the Bucs looked at times, as often as they threatened to bore you to fits of weeping with Chapter 417 of the great-defense, terrible-offense victory, as flawed as the day might have been, there was this slice of perspective. It beat being a Bengal.

Late Sunday afternoon, when Tampa Bay and Cincinnati were teaming up to clobber Cincinnati 35-7, this strange deja vu crept into the stadium. There was something haunting, something uncomfortably familiar.

You know how hopeless, hapless and helpless the Bengals looked?

Take away the squiggly lines on the helmets -- cleat marks, no doubt -- and the DNA is identical to that of the old Bucs.

The Bengals are such a sad sack of a franchise. They are government-subsidy, care-package, Sally Struthers-commercial pitiful. You don't know whether to pat them on the head or point and laugh.

There was the play when the Bengals had 12 men on a punt, and the Bucs still returned the kick 36 yards.

There was the play when the Bengals had 12 men on a punt return, and they gained 8 yards.

There was the play when the Bucs roughed the punter, just before halftime, which would have given the Bengals the ball at midfield with one shot left. And the Bengals declined.

There was the fourth-down play from the 18, when the Bengals were going to go for it. And were called for a delay of game.

There was the next play, when they decided to kick the field goal. And were called for another delay of game.

There was the play after that, when Neal Rackers kicked a short, wide, knuckleball that might have been the worst field goal attempt in the history of the NFL.

It was wild. It was wacky. And, after a while, you wondered what number Keith McCants was wearing.

No wonder it looked as if the Bucs had seen this before. The Bucs had been this before. If you're wondering whatever happened to Bucco Bruce, rumor is he had Skyline Chili for lunch.

Shortly before the half, the Bucs held a 14-7 lead, and the game was still on. With aminute left, Akili Smith dropped back to pass, and Shelton Quarles intercepted and ran it in.

In the press box, Rich McKay shook his head.

"I couldn't help but think about a game against the Rams (1990), when we were struggling early, but we were in the game," McKay said. "Just before the half, Vinny threw a pick, and they ran it in, and the game was over.

"We've been there. I've seen this before."

Tampa Bay used to be the Bengals, you know. In that closet of your memory that you hate to open, in those lingering images you would just as soon not revisit, you remember. It wasn't so long ago when the Bucs could stumble around with the worst of them. Nobody did it lesser.

"Since I came here, we were never that bad," Warren Sapp said. "Me and (Derrick) Brooks kind of killed that train. A whole different breed of players came in."

Still, bad teams can happen to good players. Ask Sapp if he could imagine spending his career on a team such as the Bengals, a team that has defied great drafts and favorable schedules and revenue sharing and a new stadium and still loses a dozen games a year.

"Oh, Jesus," Sapp said. "Only four wins?"

He laughs nervously, looks at you. "No, I can't imagine it. I can't. I don't want to. Oh, my God. Twelve losses? A year. Are you trying to kill me? I'd slit my wrists. Twelve losses a year? I'd have to give back some of the money."

Ah, but Tampa Bay resisted the league's efforts to help it get better for an eternity, too. Suppose a different owner -- one not as committed to spending or to winning as the Glazers -- buys the team in '95. Suppose they bring in a different coach than Tony Dungy. Suppose the personnel department doesn't change its draft philosophy. Suppose it doesn't assemble the core of this team.

Could the Bucs still be the Bengals?

"I don't want to think about it," safety John Lynch said. "I don't have to imagine what it's like. I was there."

They are beyond that life of grime now. Talent and payroll and expectations and standards are all raised. And it's possible to look at a 3-1 record with raised eyebrows. But when you walk around the old bad neighborhood where you used to live, maybe you should appreciate how far you've come, too.

"You have no idea how grateful I am not to be them," Sapp said. "No idea.

Maybe this is the point. Maybe, after you wonder aloud if the running game will ever show up, if the offensive line has ever seen a blitz and how significantly Johnson should increase his insurance premiums, you should exhale loudly and admit this.

There, but for the grace of heaven, go the Bucs.

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