Bucs collapse hardest loss to swallow
Tom McEwen The Tampa Tribune , published 1987

A terribly unfunny thing happened to the Tampa Bay Bucs on their way to their greatest road victory. They suffered their most shameful defeat, their most outrageous defense collapse in history. This was the 120th defeat of Buccaneer teams, and it will be recorded as the most difficult of all to achieve, considering the magnitude of the lead blown - 25 points - and considering the opponent, the 2-5 St. Louis Cardinals.

Surrendering a two-touchdown lead in the final six minutes to the Chicago Bears is one thing, but surrendering a 25-point lead with less than 14 minutes to play is a loss of far more ignominy. But, it flat happened. On a day fit for a hanging - chilly, overcast, dank - the Bucs hung themselves. On a day readied for a wake for the dying Cardinals, the switched the bodies in the casket 14 minutes before the funeral. The Buc defense supplied the pallbearers. St. Louis quarterback Neil Lomax, tight end Robert Awalt and wide receiver J.T. Smith delivered the eulogy for the Bucs.

The Cardinals resurrected to bury the Bucs with 28 points in the fourth quarter for the 31-28 win only some 22,000 saw live. They're mad with the Cardinals here, and with their owner, who says he's moving unless he gets a new stadium. And they were mad enough Sunday that they began cheering the Bucs when running back Jeff Smith scored to give the Bucs a 28-3 lead as the fourth quarter was about to begin.

It was all so easy, all going so well. The Buc offense was oiled and smoothly running, and the defense seemed ready to register a victory without yielding a touchdown. Hurrahs before TV sets back in Tampa, even maybe some on the Buc sidelines, were in order. Oh, the Bucs blew that lead to the Bears, and another to the Chargers with the strike team, and nearly blew another lead at Green Bay last week. But blow a 25-point lead? Noooooooo. Nobody had ever done that in NFL history, not in 14 minutes.

Take it further than that. Surely, nobody had with 14:20 left, and the enemy facing a fourth down and 2 at the leading team's 43. No way, Jose. We'll see, Marie. Instead of going for the short-yardage play and first down, Lomax hit a wide-open Stump Mitchell at the Buc 3 and on the next play, hit Awalt - a menace to the Bucs all day - for the touchdown, the life-giving adrenaline shot to the Cards and the morphine to the Bucs.

Then came Part 2 of the beginning of the end for the Bucs - a James Wilder fumble at the Tampa Bay 24 that Cardinal linebacker Niko Noga picked up and ran in for the touchdown to close it to 28-10. Not a man-jack who is aware of Buc heritage and late-game performances this year, after the Atlanta opener, had any doubt this game was going to wind up decided in the dying minutes, and it would be very likely that it would be the Bucs who would expire, as they did. And they did it with a flourish, with high drama, 31-28, when a 53-yard Donald Igwebuike field-goal try "needed one more spin," as Wilder said, to climb the crossbar and fall on the three-point side. It didn't. It hit and fell back into the Buc coffin, which was then closed.

Lost in the bereaving was the sensational play, the aggressive play of both Buc units for three quarters and another strong game by quarterback Steve DeBerg, who passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns. So good, indeed, that Coach Ray Perkins had Vinny Testaverde warming up. Came then the pass to Mitchell at the 3 and the touchdown. Vinny put down the football and picked up the clipboard again.

Then came the Wilder fumble and the Buc crumble, or, as judged in St. Louis, the great comeback, and, it was that. Noga took the fumble in and then Lomax hit Smith for touchdown passes of 11 and 17 yards. Note that the last one for the go-ahead score came on third down from the Bucs 17 with 2:01 left in the game and the Bucs leading 28-24. A field goal would not have done it - only the touchdown.

The Buc locker room was a funeral. Those of the defense seemed genuinely unable to figure out what happened. Cornerback Rod Jones only shook his head. He appeared near tears. Perkins said his team's heads grew oversized this week when playoff possibilities were discussed in the media. He said maybe it was lack of the conditioning he thought his team had. Or, maybe, he said, "We don't have enough guts to suck up what we need to suck up, and we're not mature enough as a team to do what it takes in the fourth quarter to win a game. "When you say you are not mature enough as a team. I think it encompasses a lot of things," said Perkins. "If you're tired in the fourth quarter, you play like you're not tired. In other words, you're mature enough to handle that. I don't think we are. I'm not sure we are in great physical shape, not after the last three weeks. We have not learned to win when we're really tired. And that's what winners do."

Defensive co-ordinator Doug Graber was in shock. He stood in the locker room for the longest time staring into space. Surely he'd have the answer to the difference in the defensive play in the final quarter. "I wish I did. I'm not that smart," he said. "It's a matter of sucking it up when you have to. We tried being aggressive to the end."

It was a fact. In fourth-quarter games against the Bears and Packers, when points were yielded in big numbers, there was wonder if the Bucs were aggressive enough. If they were rushing the quarterbacks with enough people, if they were in the so-called prevent defense too often. Well, Plan B, the rush, didn't work either. "They picked up everything we did," in that final period, said Graber. They did. The Cards repeatedly shoved away a charging Buc just as he was within grab's length of Lomax. And, Lomax threw where he had to, when he had to, and Mitchell and Smith and Awalt caught the ball when they had to. Awalt may have had as fine a fourth quarter as any tight end in years, another uncomplimentary statistic for the Buckos.

"Of course, we should have won," said defensive lineman Kevin Kellin. "You get the feeling we are snake-bit in the fourth quarter. But, this team has character. We're not that far away from being what everybody wants us to be."

When somebody suggested to linebacker Jeff Davis that perhaps the Bucs should turn to ice hockey, which has only three periods, Davis said, "No, we'll stick to football, but we do have to learn to play four, not three quarters."

Make no mistake. These Buccaneers were very aware of their sins and the penance they must serve for them, they and their fans. "We weren't ready to play," said defensive back Rick Woods. "I am as embarrassed as anybody."

Perkins didn't think his team played as well as it should have all day long, saying from the first quarter on "we stunk up the place in a lot of areas." Maybe, but the most foul smell rose from the carcass in the fourth quarter.