Nick of Time
Backs to the wall, the Bucs had their finest hour against the
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
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
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
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.
Air's Gone Out of Steelers Attack
After last Friday's practice at Three Rivers Stadium, Steelers
quarterback Kordell Stewart and wideout Will Blackwell stood
near the 10-yard line and, in a test of skill, threw footballs
at the goalpost. Blackwell was the first to clank one off an
upright, and for his effort he received a standing ovation from
a small group of stadium workers. "They were excited because
they thought they had found a new quarterback," quipped Stewart.
After helping Pittsburgh get to the AFC Championship Game and
making the Pro Bowl as an alternate in his first year as a
starter last season, Stewart is going through a severe slump. In
eight games he has completed just 117 of 220 passes for 1,159
yards and six touchdowns, and he has thrown 10 interceptions. In
a 41-31 loss to the Oilers on Sunday, though he threw for a
season-high 230 yards, Stewart was replaced in the fourth
quarter after throwing three interceptions and with the Steelers
The Steelers rank next to last in the NFL with 146.5 passing
yards per game, and Stewart ranks ahead of only three other
passers in the league's quarterback ratings, with a 58.5 mark.
"I would love to have games where I throw for 400 yards," says
Stewart. "But I've come to understand that that doesn't matter.
If I throw for 82 yards and we win, to me those are great
The company line in Pittsburgh takes much the same tone: If the
Steelers are winning, then Stewart isn't struggling. "If we were
2-5, then I'd be concerned," first-year offensive coordinator Ray
Sherman said last Friday. "We win the ball game, and then someone
says, 'Hey Kordell didn't throw for 200 yards.' Well, who gives a
crap? We won the game."
But Pittsburgh is 5-3 and a game behind the Jaguars in the AFC
Central, and Stewart hasn't performed up to last year's level.
More than anyone, he has been affected by the team's annual
free-agent exodus. Left tackle John Jackson signed with the
Chargers after 10 years in Pittsburgh, and this year the
Steelers have already surrendered 17 sacks--only three fewer
than they gave up all of last season. Stewart's favorite target
last year was wideout Yancey Thigpen, who caught 79 passes, then
signed with the Oilers in the off-season. And offensive
coordinator Chan Gailey left to coach the Cowboys.
"Everything is different for Kordell this year," says running
back Jerome Bettis. "He had to start from scratch with the line,
the receivers and a coordinator with his own philosophies, and
that has created some mumbo jumbo in Kordell's head."
"I'm not going to sit here and say, 'Dang, I'm disappointed,'"
Stewart says. "We're winning, and I know the best is yet to
come." With a game against the Packers looming on Monday night,
the Steelers certainly hope so.
A Sweetheart In New York
After he was unable to cut a deal with either the Broncos or the
Seahawks in the off-season, free-agent linebacker Bryan Cox was
preparing to settle into a life of golf, softball and training
thoroughbreds at his Florida farm, which is appropriately named
Freakman Stables. Then Jets coach Bill Parcells called and
offered him a job.
During his seven-year career with the Dolphins and Bears, Cox
was named to the Pro Bowl three times and assessed more than
$130,000 in fines for bizarre behavior such as throwing his
helmet and making obscene gestures at fans. "In some cases I've
been an idiot," Cox admitted when he signed a one-year, $500,000
contract with the Jets in August.
Under the thumb of Parcells, Cox has settled into his role as a
versatile backup and elder statesman. "It's a process of
maturing," Cox said last week. "Those other situations were
chaotic and frustrating. But here I'm not a big-money free agent
and the defense isn't built around me. I can just relax and play."
Playing mostly outside linebacker in third-down situations, Cox
has three sacks, is sixth on the team with 25 solo tackles and
is working to change his reputation from madman to wise man. He
gave a stirring pregame speech before the Oct. 25 game against
the Falcons, his first start for New York, and then contributed
five tackles in the Jets' 28-3 rout. Last week Cox was rewarded
for his play in the first half of the season with a two-year,
$2.2 million contract extension.
"I'm probably more passionate about the game than I have been
the last two or three years, but at the same time I don't feel
like I have to scream and holler anymore," says Cox. "On this
team the coach takes care of that."
The End Zone
It's the Thought That Counts
Upon arriving at Rams Park last Friday, St. Louis players and
coaches were greeted by a large, hand-painted sign outside the
facility that read, TO BELIEVE IS TO HAVE THE POWER. WE BELIEVE.
Two days later the Rams lost to the Falcons, 37-15. It was the
club's worst defeat in 24 games under coach Dick Vermeil.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Alstott could not have picked a more opportune time to turn in a career-best rushing performance. [Mike Alstott and Dixon Edwards in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Stewart is on pace for a 12-touchdown-pass, 20-interception season. [Kordell Stewart]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Cox has adjusted to his role with the Jets--and picked up three sacks in the process. [Bryan Cox and Dan Marino]
1. And then there was one. By virtue of their 33-26
come-from-behind win over the Bengals, the Broncos became only
the 10th NFL team to start a season 8-0. Of the previous nine,
seven reached the Super Bowl. It's hard to imagine that Denver
won't be the eighth.
2. Off the hook. Redskins coach Norv Turner benches wideout
Michael Westbrook for missing last Saturday's practice. The next
day Washington plays inspired football and picks up its first
win of the season, 21-14 over the Giants. Redskins fans take
note: Your team is only three games back in the NFC wild-card
3. Some homecoming. Quarterback Kerry Collins returns to
Carolina as a member of the Saints and watches from the sideline
as the Panthers win their first game, 31-17. "You absolutely
can't believe the things that were said to Kerry before, during
and after the game," Saints president and general manager Bill
Kuharich said on Monday, of the heckling Collins took from the
crowd. But that doesn't justify Collins's behavior early on
Monday, when he was stopped by police in Charlotte and charged
with driving under the influence.