Impressive win was a godsend
Only one in the universe could have foretold what happened at Tampa Stadium Sunday. God. Had others suspected what happened would happen, there would have been 74,000 there instead of 51,250 to witness the miracle. The Tampa Bay cultural community had its Great Gala Saturday night with the opening of the Performing Arts Center, and a Great Gala it was. Well, the Tampa Bay sports community had just as Great a Gala Sunday afternoon.

A 48-10 Buccaneer victory over the Atlanta Falcons can only be judged miraculous. When nose tackle Mike Stensrud arrived from Minnesota last week to become a Buc, he said the Lord had a hand in guiding him here. Plenty will vow The Man stuck around to guide the passing arm of Steve DeBerg, to touch the receiving hands of Mark Carrier, Calvin Magee, James Wilder, Phil Freeman, Gerald Carter, Cliff Austin, Bobby Howard and Ron Hall, to be with the Buc defenders and special team players and to stand beside Coach Ray Perkins when the Bucs had the ball and Coach Doug Graber when Atlanta had the ball, which wasn't very often.

It was an uncommon afternoon of fun and relaxation for Buccaneer fans, one of fun for the Bucs themselves. The game was simply never in doubt ever. Buc fans had not squirmed one, another rarity. The Bucs scored points five of the first six times they had the ball. The Bucs scored first and the Bucs scored last. The Bucs ran it to 27-3 at halftime and twice denied Atlanta points in those minutes just before intermission, not judged a safe time by long-time viewers of this franchise.

The Bucs did not fumble, were one intercepted, but it was harmless. The Buc receivers, who had drops in the preseason, played as if possessed, or, as suggested, had divine assistance. The Buc defense played with vigour and aggression from the start to the very end, hounding starting quarterback Dave Archer into ineffectiveness. The defense allowed world-class running back Gerald Riggs only 52 yards.

DeBerg, who threw seven interceptions in the 1986 31-7 opening loss to San Francisco right here, threw for a personal high and Buc record five touchdown passes against Atlanta, saying himself it probably was the best single game of his 10-year-and-one-game career. His statistics were 24 completed passes of 34 thrown, for 333 yards, the five touchdowns and the single interception.

Yes, he said, he thought about those seven interceptions, and he wanted to throw seven touchdown passes for the fun of it, and in atonement, if it would be judged to be that. Yes, he said he told quarterback Vinny Testaverde on the sidelines, ""I'm setting some records for you to break later on." And DeBerg did all this with a back aching from a strain while lifting weights Tuesday and with a touch of the flu. ""It felt everything I threw was going where I aimed it," and that was a fact. So often his passes were fired into what appeared to be good coverage, the ball whipping through defending arms and bodies by an eyelash, his receivers clinging to the ball as if a big bonus went with each catch. Four different receivers caught touchdown passes. Carter caught two of the five.

The Buc running game was not of Super Bowl caliber, but new backs Cliff Austin and Jeff Smith and Steve Bartalo had some success, as did James Wilder and Bobby Howard. Howard broke clean for a 45-yard run. Wilder was used at times as a deep receiver and that worked. He's a tough man when he gets the ball downfield in full stride.

DeBerg gave full credit to Ray Perkins, who has worked so closely with him since last February. The question was would DeBerg be the DeBerg of preseason or of last year. He was the DeBerg of preseason. No, he was even better than that. "We had a great game plan," he said. "We were up 27-3 at the half, and I had used only a quarter of the plan. We also had a terrific third-down package," which produced nine straight third-down conversions, 14 of 16 overall. Two of them produced touchdowns. Several came out of the shotgun offense.

It was the kind of overwhelming victory that caused the offense to say the defense won it and the defense to say the offense won it, the coach to say it was a team victory. It was. The defense had one letdown that permitted a 34-yard Scott Campbell touchdown pass to Stacey Bailey when the score was 41-3 and the game issue resolved. And place-kicker Donald Igwebuike pushed his third extra-point try wide right but missed no others and kicked off well. He didn't attempt any field goals.

The Falcons were two-point favourites, the betting line said, before the misery for Atlanta began, before the pleasure for the Bucs began. But plenty, including Perkins, figured his team would win, probably in the fourth quarter because of the conditioning.

The Bucs won it in the first quarter 14-0, 13-3 in the second quarter, 7-0 in the third and 14-7 in the fourth. Again, that comes to 48-10, a final sure to cause doubletakes the nation over. It isn't likely to cause the Chicago Bears to tremble (they play host to the New York Giants tonight), "but it builds our confidence," said defensive tackle Kevin Kellin, "to go up there and take on that great team next Sunday."

DeBerg, in the lightest of moods, quipped, "Yeah, we'll go up and beat Chicago, be 2-0, go on strike and make the playoffs that way." A player strike is threatened after the second game of the season. Perkins said hard work by all, his staff, his players, paid off. He expected a win, but nothing like this. "Steve DeBerg," the coach said, "played one of the best games of any quarterback I have ever been associated with. Our third-down conversion rate was so important. I looked up and saw 3:48 left in the third quarter, and we were punting for the first (and last) time. Our guys got ready to play and played."

As DeBerg ran off the field, he held the ball he had just handled in the final series aloft and pumped it to the delight of the east-stands crowd. Inside the locker room, he declared it the game ball and presented it to Perkins. Two of the fans watching, Henry Baker (with son Abdul) and Tony Brinson, agreed. ""We're going to the playoffs. Super Bowl, here we come."

Well, it's a tad early for that, but DeBerg, newly elected offensive captain and newly elected hero, probably spoke for the team when he summarised, "Right now I am high as a kite. Today, it was for real. Let's hope it's for real for the season." Thank you, Lord, said one Buc, in the locker room.

Tom McEwen The Tampa Tribune , September 1987