The big-play wide receiver sat alone at a locker at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., moments after his Buccaneers' 20-13 victory over Carolina on Sunday. No microphones were in his face, no hot lights blinded his eyes, for the big-play wide receiver didn't make any big plays. Come to think of it, the big-play receiver didn't even make many small plays.
Welcome to the Buccaneers, Alvin Harper. What a strange start it has been.
On Sunday, Harper, who after four years with the Cowboys signed a four-year, $10.6 million contract with the Bucs in March, had two receptions for 23 ho-hum yards. "I just played the cards dealt to me," Harper said. "If they're not calling my number, I'll run my back-side routes." So why didn't he get the ball more? Was he open? "I'm always open, nobody can cover me," said Harper, who, truth be told, was covered well.
Said Tampa Bay coach Sam Wyche, "I take responsibility for not getting the ball to Harper more. Their tendency charts were right on the money. If we had gone deep a couple times with them sitting on Harper, we might have come up with a big play with him."
Late in the second quarter Buc quarterback Trent Dilfer was sidelined with a mild concussion. Before backup Casey Weldon entered the game, Harper was spotted chatting with him on the sideline. What did Harper tell Weldon? "I was planting the seed in his head to get me the ball," he said unabashedly.
Weldon played well. He finished nine of 20 for 156 yards and scored the game-wining touchdown, a one-yard dive early in the fourth quarter. But Harper was rarely his primary target. Seven Bucs caught passes, tight end Jackie Harris leading the way with five catches for 108 yards. Regardless, the Bucs still see Harper as their big-play man.
"Alvin brings us a big player we haven't had in the past," said receivers coach David Culley. "Against Washington he made a play that none of our guys have made."
In that Week 4 game against the Redskins, which was Harper's debut—he missed the first three games with a sprained right ankle and most of the preseason with a knee injury—Harper caught the game-winning pass, a seven-yard touchdown, on the first play of the fourth quarter. After being ruled out of bounds by head linesman Earnie Frantz, Harper grabbed Frantz as he pleaded his case. Frantz was eventually overruled, but Harper had already been ejected. His day was complete: three receptions for 27 yards and a $7,500 fine from the league for bumping an official.
It was a bittersweet debut. In the first half against Washington, Dilfer did not throw a pass Harper's way; at halftime the veteran receiver broke a sideline telephone in frustration. "I'll be real frank about this," Dilfer said after the Bucs' 14-6 victory. "I talked to Alvin at halftime. I said, 'You can moan all you want. You're going to get the ball when you're open. I'm not going to be stupid and throw you the ball when you're not open. And you weren't open.' "