When a reporter approached Tampa Bay wideout Alvin Harper after the Bucs' disheartening 25-6 loss to the Bears on Sunday at Tampa Stadium, Harper got a surprised look on his face. "What do you want to talk to me for?" he said. "I didn't play." Yeah, well, neither did many of the Bucs who suited up for the game instead of watching it in street clothes, as Harper did because of an injured right ankle. So now Harper, the high-priced ex-Cowboy free agent, is expected to make his Tampa Bay debut this week against the Redskins. He can only hope he's not surrounded by the S.O.B.'s—that's Same Old Bucs, of course—who rolled over miserably for the Bears.
Heading into their home opener, the Bucs seemed to have a lot going for them, for a change. In their first two games, an impressive victory over the Eagles and a respectable loss to the Browns, the Bucs had indicated that—no kidding—they might be contenders in the NFC Central, where everybody seems to be rebuilding. Wishful thinking? It didn't seem so. Sunday's game was the beginning of a stretch that includes five home games (Chicago, Washington, Cincinnati, Minnesota and Atlanta) and an easy road trip (Carolina). A start of, oh, 5-3 or 6-2 didn't seem unreasonable.
Last Thursday, just before the NFL's 72-hour blackout deadline, a Tampa TV station snapped up the remaining 800 tickets so the game could be televised locally. It was the first time the Bucs had a sellout home crowd in September since the 1982 opener against the Redskins, and it had little to do with the fact that Lee Roy Selmon, the Bucs' great defensive end from 1976 to '84, would receive his Hall of Fame ring at halftime. Nothing against Selmon, but to hell with the past. There was new ownership, the fans were excited over the present and the future, and the players felt likewise. "They're looking forward to playing in front of the sellout crowd," Buc coach Sam Wyche said.
Maybe sellouts aren't such a good thing for the Bucs. The last one in Tampa had been the 1994 finale against Green Bay, and the result was a 34-19 loss that snapped a four-game Buc winning streak. But that performance was a good one compared with what happened on Sunday. The Bucs committed an ungodly seven turnovers and were victimized by a blocked punt. The main goat was second-year quarterback Trent Dilfer (rhymes with pilfer), who threw four interceptions before Wyche mercifully sat him down with 9:58 remaining and the Bucs trailing by 16.
"I don't think anybody thought the game was over at that point," Dilfer said. "I'm not second-guessing the decision; he did the right thing. Honestly, I've never felt this lousy after a sporting event in my life."
Both Dilfer (11 of 27 for 149 yards) and backup Casey Weldon (4 of 7 for 39 yards) repeatedly overthrew their receivers. Even Harper, as brilliant a leaper as he is, wouldn't have been able to catch those balls. "We're anxious to get Alvin back," Wyche said, "but our receivers didn't play badly today. The ball was flying on Trent. He just didn't have one of his better days."
Neither did the Chicago offense, for that matter. The Bears drove or started inside the Tampa Bay 20 five times but scored only one touchdown—Robert Green's seven-yard TD run early in the third quarter on the first play after cornerback Jeremy Lincoln picked off a Dilfer pass and returned it 32 yards.
Lincoln's interception, which came with the Bears holding a 9-3 lead, started the Bucs' demise, and free safety Anthony Marshall's block of a Reggie Roby punt and 11-yard return for a touchdown two minutes later completed it.
Afterward, Buc running back Errict Rhett was so disheartened he wasn't his usual talkative self. "What can I tell you?" he said. "That wasn't us playing out there. I don't know what to say, except that it's no fun when you lose like this at home."