By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000
Today or not at all.
In a quivering, confusing funk at 3-4, the Bucs need 7-2 sizzle between here and Christmas to make sure they have a January.
Too bad Tampa Bay can't be playing San Diego, Cincinnati, Arizona or some other NFL punkweight. But, no, it's the Minnesota Vikings coming to Raymond James Stadium.
Unbeaten flashy, sassy purple.
Tony Dungy is not a gambler. Generally, a good trait. But maybe, at times, it'd be better if Tampa Bay's coach had a little more of a spin-the-wheel, let-it-ride, go-for-broke mentality.
Like his pal, Dennis Green.
In back-to-back college drafts, Double-Down Denny has reached into volcanoes and pulled out diamonds. Such shining gems that they have stirred his Vikings to a 7-0 start.
Blue chips keep stacking.
First it was Randy Moss, a majestically gifted but frequently troubled Marshall Thundering Herd receiver. Onetime bombout at Florida State. "How bad will he be," you heard it asked, "after becoming an NFL millionaire?"
Green took a first-round stab. Snagging a lean, supposedly mean kid and putting Moss into Cris Carter's protective custody. So, look now, see who's the most dynamic catcher of footballs since young Jerry Rice.
Then, last year, the Denny roll came to Daunte Culpepper, a quarterbacking talent too big, too good, too remarkable to believe at the University of Central Florida. Many pro scouts figured this bigger-than-big fish, when removed from his small pond, might become a stiff to exceed Herman Munster.
Green is raking the table. Long-shot winner again. Odds be damned. Gossip aside. Culpepper, after not throwing a pass in his rookie season, is playing a frightening game of catch-and-celebrate with Moss. Fueling a balanced, dynamic Vikings offense.
So what do the Bucs do about all this? After a 3-0 start, averaging 31 points, the Tampa Bay offense has turned to sawdust. Mike Alstott fumbles too much. Shaun King's passes are ineffective. Keyshawn Johnson has been more mouth than might. Warrick Dunn is still too small.
It doesn't take Clark Kent hearing to pick up 10,000 combustible opinions in the Tampa Bay community. Most everybody has reasons for the 0-4 demise, also Bucs solutions to suggest.
Dungy doesn't much listen to outsiders. He says basics will be reinstituted against Minnesota. As poorly as the Bucs have been running, they will work at getting Alstott/Dunn humming. King's passing can't carry Tampa Bay. His coach by now knows that.
Okay, here's mine
I agree that King, Alstott, Johnson and Dunn are major elements in a slumbering offense. But it doesn't stop there. Show me an NFL franchise that makes a Super Bowl without quality play at offensive tackles. Show me a way Tampa Bay can get there with Pete Pierson and Jerry Wunsch.
It's no fun saying that.
Diseases are catching. Worse the offense plays, the more likely Bucs defense will crack. They're not so dominant now, despite averaging a whipping seven sacks a game. Not so good against the run. That's bad news, since Minnesota's rushing act is the NFL's most productive. Blend that with Culpepper, Moss and Carter. A daunting challenge.
It's hard to explain why, but I think the Bucs will beat Minnesota. Like in 1998 when Tampa Bay showed up with a 3-4 log and the power purples were 7-0. America may be close, after all the Super Bowl jabber, to giving up on the Bucs as a stout product. But not quite. The Sporting News has seven writers/editors who pick NFL games each week. All but one predict a win for the Bucs.
Is the pirate ship sinking at Raymond James Stadium? I don't think so. Despite turbulence. Maybe it's blind faith, but I think the Bucs will not surrender as meekly as in recent failures.
Pride still runs deep in Dungy's den. Those guys can count. They understand that a fifth loss in a row will drop them, in national perceptions, back among pro football's listless mediocres.
Maybe it takes an exam as stiff as 7-0 hunks from Minnesota to jar the Bucs from an embarrassing lull. Stuff, good and bad, is contagious. Tampa Bay was 3-0 and just five minutes from 4-0 when cracks began to appear, offensively and defensively, allowing the Jets a ridiculous comeback win.
Where has 3-0 excellence gone?
From there, it evolved into a messy Bucs slide against Washington, then a deepening crevasse at Minnesota three weeks ago, and finally an avalanche of flubbery against Detroit.
You stem the stumbles by taking one solid step, then another. Putting something good together. Making one dandy play, then another. Building something strong, replacing the weak.
If the Bucs don't show such signs against the Vikings, they become a pitiful also-ran left with nothing but prayers for a 9-7 record that might allow them to squeak into the playoffs.
Have they sunk that low?