Nick of Time
Backs to the wall, the Bucs had their finest hour against the Vikings
After posing for the team picture last Saturday, Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy talked about how one break might spark his struggling club and turn it around in the next day's game against the Vikings. "Sometimes all it takes is one game, one play or one moment, and it can just kick you to another level," said Dungy. "There have been a lot of teams left for dead at the halfway point of the season that came back and made something happen. That one moment we need just hasn't happened yet."
On Sunday an opportunity presented itself early. Facing a fourth-and-seven at the Minnesota 31 on Tampa Bay's opening possession, Dungy shunned a field goal attempt, and quarterback Trent Dilfer completed a 10-yard pass to running back Warrick Dunn. Four plays later Dunn scored on a 10-yard run, setting the tone for a 27-24 victory that evened the Bucs' record at 4-4 and knocked the Vikings from the unbeaten ranks.
"We reaffirmed a lot of things today," Tampa Bay center Tony Mayberry said afterward. "A belief in this team, in this offense, in each other and in what we still can accomplish this season."
Entering the game the Bucs' anemic offense had failed to score a touchdown in 38 first-half possessions and had been outscored 64-15 in the first two quarters. This was not the team that many had predicted would contend for a Super Bowl berth. "Maybe somewhere in our mind we did relax a little," says Dungy, whose club made the playoffs last year for the first time since 1982. "We all just assumed it would be easy, but we've found that it's much harder to maintain something than it is to just get there."
Mistakes had negated what little offense Tampa Bay could muster. The Bucs ranked 28th in the league in turnover margin (-7) before they met the Vikings, having hit rock bottom the week before in a 9-3 loss to the Saints. In that game Tampa Bay turned the ball over three times and receivers dropped seven passes.
On Sunday the Bucs had no turnovers, only two offensive penalties, no punts, touchdowns on their first two possessions, 22 first downs, a team-record 246 rushing yards and, for the first time in franchise history, two backs who ran for more than 100 yards in the same game. Fullback Mike Alstott had a career-high 128 yards on 19 carries, and Dunn added 115 yards on 18 carries.
On a starting offense whose average age is 26, Alstott is developing into the kind of leader the Bucs desperately need. "Unlike the 49ers and the Packers, we don't have a lot of players who have dealt with adversity, have battled through it and can tell others what to do," says Dungy. "It would help us a lot if we had more guys who'd been through the ropes in this league. But two years from now, if we're faced with this again, we'll understand it better and get through it quicker."
Hampered by a hip injury he suffered at a June minicamp, Alstott has been slow to hit his stride. But against Minnesota he was at his punishing best, bouncing off a couple of defenders to score the go-ahead touchdown on a six-yard run midway through the fourth quarter, then sealing the win with a 37-yard jaunt. After the game Alstott trotted off the field, his pants stained with equal parts mud and blood.
It was a scene that seemed to say that if the Bucs aren't back, they're at least on their way.