You could tell a lot about the fortunes of the two teams just by looking at the opposing quarterbacks after the game. Tampa Bay's victorious Vinny Testaverde: cool, unscathed, mellow, clad in T-shirt, jeans and loafers, his ample, curly locks brushed out of a game-time ponytail. New Orleans's vanquished Bobby Hebert: dazed, pained, uncertain, beads of sweat dotting his blue dress shirt, his words slipping through the hole where one and a half of his upper front teeth used to be.
Hebert lost the teeth late in the first quarter of the Buccaneers' 20-10 win when Tampa Bay strong safety Mark Robinson savaged him with a late hit at the end of an eight-yard scramble at the Bucs' three-yard line. The Bucs were penalized for the blow, the ball was moved to the Tampa Bay one-yard line, and running back Dalton Hilliard scored on the next play to put New Orleans ahead 7-0. But the Saints gave up more than they received in the deal—Hebert lost his marbles as well as some enamel on the play. Backup quarterback John Fourcade replaced him, injured his left ankle and knee just before the half and that, essentially, was the end of the game. Fourcade completed only four of 11 passes for 61 yards and threw an interception before he was replaced by the still-woozy Hebert midway through the third quarter. Hebert, who had completed his first four passes before getting injured, ended up with 15 completions in 23 attempts for 169 yards, an interception and amnesia.
"I remember not hook-sliding on that run, but nothing after that," he said. Hebert knew that Robinson had come up to him after the game to apologize for the hit, but he didn't know why an apology was needed. "That's just part of the game," he told Robinson. Informed by a reporter that the tackle was made by cornerback Ricky Reynolds and that Robinson's only contribution had been a late knee to the head, Hebert seemed shocked. "Now I'm——off!" he said.
And well he should have been, not only because of the wallop but also because of the Saints' demise this season. Picked by some experts as a Super Bowl contender, New Orleans, which is now 1-2, is looking less like a team headed relentlessly to the top and more like, well, Tampa Bay of yore. As for the current Bucs, they're 2-1 and playing like Super Bowl candidates! Well, O.K., like a .500 team, maybe. But mediocrity itself is a noble goal for this franchise, which had lost 74 of its last 95 games before this season began, lost 10 or more games in all but three of its 13 years of existence and took 27 games after entering the NFL in 1976 just to beat anybody in a regular-season game.
"I promise you we will win in the third year," coach Ray Perkins has said repeatedly. This is Perkins's third season running the Bucs, and it's possible he knows what he is talking about. Tampa Bay won two of its final three games in 1988 and three of four preseason games this year, and would be undefeated now if Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers hadn't pulled out a last-second 20-16 win two weeks ago. "Better times are here," says third-year linebacker Winston Moss. For his part on Sunday, Moss—who retained his starting position ahead of the Bucs' 1989 first-round pick, former Nebraska linebacker Broderick (Sandman) Thomas—had five tackles and an assist.
Two days before the game, Perkins, who has two years to go on a five-year contract worth about $3.75 million, explained why the third year of a coach's reign should be the charm. "It's the year you should be able to get over the hump," he said, his icy blue eyes flashing. "It's three years of putting your players together. It's three drafts. Right now 38 of the 47 players on the team are players we have accumulated. It's difficult to coach another man's players." By "we" Perkins means "I," because he is not only the head coach but also the offensive coordinator, the quarterback coach and the vice-president of football operations.
Testaverde, the Heisman Trophy winner from Miami, is most assuredly Perkins's player. Taken first overall in the 1987 draft, he has had a rough ride on his way to NFL success, with Perkins supporting him through it all. "Emotionally, I want to be inside Vinny's helmet with him," said Perkins before the 1988 season. That was a little like somebody asking to ride the Brahma bull for the entire rodeo circuit.
Testaverde played in only six games as a rookie, in 1987, completing just 43% of his passes. As a starter last year he threw for 3,240 yards and 13 TDs, but put up an astonishing 35 interceptions. Defensive backs were afraid to turn their backs on the cannon-armed kid for fear of getting injured by the ball. Not all the interceptions were the result of Testaverde's failings. "I was responsible for a few," said wide receiver Mark Carrier, this year's leading receiver, with 16 catches for 279 yards. "I remember one against the Colts, when I ran inside the linebacker instead of behind him, and Vinny threw where I should have been. But he never pointed the finger."
Half of last year's interceptions were other people's fault, said Perkins, and "half of the rest were my fault." So what was wrong? Well, all right, said the coach, Testaverde had to learn to read defenses better and to "take what is there," rather than going deep so often. "But nothing has happened with Vinny that's unnatural for any young quarterback," said Perkins.
Against New Orleans, Testaverde threw only one interception, a sideline heave on which Saints cornerback Robert Massey made an outstanding play to steal the ball from wide receiver Danny Peebles. With only three interceptions in three games this year—two on Hail Marys in the San Francisco game—Testaverde has clearly learned patience. In the Saints game, a generally sloppy affair (four fumbles, less than 700 total offensive yards, and 20 penalties, including an unsportsmanlike conduct call against Perkins for protesting another unsportsmanlike conduct call against one of his players), Testaverde stood out like an island of calm. "Last year I don't think we could have won a game like this," he said. But now the defense, which ranks eighth in the league, is sound, and with Testaverde carefully guiding a limited but hard-working offense, Tampa Bay has the chance to sneak up on a few people.