Vote of no confidence
It figures. On a day when the Buccaneers had a chance to convince voters to be penny-wise, they were pounded foolishly. A sales-tax referendum that will determine whether the team remains in Tampa Bay is still one day away, but the Bucs hoped to show Sunday against the Green Bay Packers what you can continue viewing for an extra half-cent.
It's a scent you will recognize.
Instead of providing Tony Dungy with a proper NFL head-coaching debut, the Bucs played a six-turnover stinker and were handed their worst opening-day defeat in franchise history by losing 34-3 to the Packers before 54,102 at Houlihan's Stadium. Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre was easy to recognize as the league's MVP by throwing four touchdowns, three to tight end Keith Jackson.
But Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer continued to have other initials attached to his name: INT. Dilfer was intercepted four times and struggled to complete 13-of-30 passes for 123 yards. But he was sabotaged by dropped balls by his high-priced receiver, Alvin Harper, who accounted for two turnovers with a first-quarter pass that bounced off his hands and was intercepted and a fumble.
How the game will sway Tuesday's vote is uncertain, but it didn't go over too well with Dungy. "I don't know if it'll effect it or not," Dungy said. "It wasn't on our mind. We had a home game against a division opponent that we wanted to win. And that's the disappointing thing. We didn't get the job done. There'll be a lot of people taking shots at us now, saying we're not a very good football team and we didn't show we were a very good football team today. But I still think we have the makings of one."
The Bucs needed to play over their heads to stay on the field with the Packers, a team many pick to win the Super Bowl. Instead, they buried themselves with mistakes in the first half to spot Green Bay a 10-0 lead. Harper set the tone on the sixth play of the game when he had a pass bounce off his hands and into the mitts of safety Mike Prior for an interception. On the next possession, tailback Jerry Ellison fumbled to set up Favre's first TD pass to Jackson.
But it was a mental meltdown over a span of 72 seconds by the Bucs to end the first half that turned the game into a rout.
Instead of forcing the Packers to settle for a 13-3 lead on Chris Jacke's field goal with 1:51 left before halftime, rookie Regan Upshaw was called for defensive holding on the kick and gave Favre another bullet.
On the next play, he fired a 4-yard strike to Jackson for a touchdown and a 17-3 lead.
The Bucs were unable to run out the clock and gave the Packers the ball back at midfield with 49 seconds left. Favre would need just one play.
A miscommunication between safeties Melvin Johnson and Todd Scott resulted in Jackson running free down the middle of the field and Favre delivered a 51-yard pass for a TD and a 24-3 lead to take to the locker room.
"It was a missed assignment. You don't have a guy running open down the middle without a breakdown," Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "I guarantee you, we didn't draw that one on the board. We said all along this is an explosive offense. They went out to Candlestick Park and lit it up. Before you sat down, it was over. They took Dallas (in the NFC Championship Game) down to the wire. Our whole thing was to keep the ball in front of us, they're going to make some first downs. Just hang in there. Believe it or not, if we'd come into halftime trailing 13-3, we would've been fired up."
Upshaw's mistake was the killer. The rookie defensive end was called for holding when he tossed a blocker away from the kick. "I just used the wrong technique. I should've power rushed. I guess I did something illegal," Upshaw said. "I didn't know that was illegal to tell you the truth. I thought they called me offsides. It's a different game, it's a learning experience, it won't happen again, I'll tell you that."
One thing Dungy learned about his team Sunday was that it doesn't overcome bad plays. "We're not used to overcoming adversity, I can see that," Dungy said. "We get a little adversity, it kind of snowballs on us."
It became an avalanche of mistakes on offense. The Bucs converted just 2-of-10 third downs. They were held to 59 yards rushing, a paltry 2.3 yard per carry. Their outside receivers, Harper and Courtney Hawkins, combined to catch just five passes. Including the preseason, the Bucs have gone 12 quarters without an offensive touchdown.
The Bucs looked like a team that can't afford to have 1,000-yard rusher Errict Rhett holding out. Or receiver Horace Copeland on the shelf with a season-ending knee injury.
Dungy was asked whether those two might have made the difference. "It's hard to say," Dungy said. "I don't know if Copeland and Rhett would've helped today."
Lost in all the talk about Rhett, Copeland, the referendum and the Packers was how taxing all of this was on Dungy, who waited 10 years to get here.
"I was sitting here telling Charles Dimry that," Scott said. "Man, I feel so, so bad for Tony. This shouldn't have any bearing on what people think of him, his coaching job, his coaching staff or whatever. We just didn't play well today. I don't care who you play. If we played like we played today, we wouldn't have beaten anyone."
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1996