Dungy and Dilfer lead breakthrough for Bucs New coach, rejuvenated quarterback give life to one of NFL's doormats

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is what it means to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach:

After winning seven games in 1995 -- the most wins for the team in 14 years -- Sam Wyche is fired.

This is what it means to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan:

After a miserable 2-14 season in 1985, the Bucs take running back Bo Jackson with the first pick in the draft -- and promptly lose him to baseball.

This is what it means to be the owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: After being hailed for saving the franchise from a move to Baltimore, Malcolm Glazer is demonized by Tampa fans when he seeks public financing for a new, state-of-the-art stadium -- with the clear threat he will relocate if he doesn't get it.

This is a franchise that has a quarterback who, until recently, couldn't hit the broad side of a barn without first overthrowing it. It's a franchise that has a coach who was third on the team's wish list behind two high-profile alternatives.

It's a franchise that holds a bitter tradition of losing: 13 consecutive seasons, and counting. Look at the Bucs' sordid history long enough and you wonder if they have a legacy or just a curse.

Yet, just when the horizon looked bleakest, the Bucs find themselves on the verge of a breakthrough. With Sunday's 25-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers, they won back-to-back games for the first time since October 1995. They also ended a 10-game losing streak on the road, and won for only the second time on the West Coast in 21 trips.

At 3-8, the Bucs still are mired in last place in the NFC Central. But they are advancing quickly on respectability, their momentum no longer a downward spiral.

That directional shift effectively took place in January with the arrival of Tony Dungy, the third-choice coach who had carved a solid reputation the past 15 years as an NFL assistant.

Rebuffed in attempts to lure either Jimmy Johnson, the one-time University of Miami coach, or Steve Spurrier, whose Florida Gators played for the national championship last season, general manager Rich McKay locked in on Dungy.

"The No. 1 thing I focused on going through the coaching search -- the one thing the franchise screamed for -- was stability," McKay said. "That was the one thing that came out about Tony. He's an incredibly stable human being who does a nice job of calming players in an era when that's hard to do.

"That's his No. 1 trait. He absolutely prevents panic. In this league, desperate people do desperate things."

Dungy was the antidote for what ailed the Bucs, and he was long overdue. He had been the youngest assistant coach in the NFL at the age of 25 in 1981 with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Three years later, he was the NFL's youngest defensive coordinator.

Because he was on the fast track, many believed Dungy, now 41, would become the first African-American coach in modern NFL history. But it didn't happen. Art Shell (Raiders), Dennis Green (Minnesota Vikings) and Ray Rhodes (Philadelphia Eagles) all beat him to head coaching jobs. Dungy was passed over twice by the Eagles, once by Green Bay and most recently by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"It was quite apparent to me the first time I talked with Tony why he didn't get hired," said McKay, the son of John McKay, legendary Southern California coach and first coach of the Bucs. "Tony is not a self-promoter. He's a very basic, down-to-earth guy, a highly intelligent guy who has a plan. But he doesn't stand on a desk and pound on it. I could see how owners would say they want more, somebody who would really sell their team.

"The second time I interviewed him, I said to our owner, 'I'm really surprised now, having spent more time with him, how this guy hasn't been hired.' "

Dungy signed a six-year, $3.6 million contract with the Bucs, then had to ride out the war over a new stadium and attendant relocation rumors. It wasn't until after the season started that Hillsborough County voters passed a referendum that will pump money into schools, jails, roads and a new stadium, assuring the team will stay in Tampa.

The battle took its toll on the Bucs, if not Dungy. The team's season-ticket base dropped to 25,000, or 10,000 less than expected. In-house attendance has slipped to 39,368 for five home dates.

"We have not gotten the support we need to be competitive," McKay said, "but we certainly got the support we deserved."

The Bucs' 0-5 start didn't help. Plagued by injuries in the line, a holdout by running back Errict Rhett that reached eight games and inconsistent play by third-year quarterback Trent Dilfer, the offense scored more than one touchdown only once during the first month of the season.

But Dungy prevented panic, kept the struggling Dilfer at quarterback, and after the team's bye week, was rewarded with a 24-13 victory over his old team, the Minnesota Vikings.

Since the bye, Dilfer has been a different quarterback and the Bucs a different team. Dungy credits offensive coordinator Mike Shula with bringing Dilfer up to speed.

"I think Mike has done a great job being patient with him, getting him to understand exactly what we need on offense," Dungy said. "Part of it is just getting to play more snaps in the system."

One of Dilfer's biggest problems was accuracy. He completed only 46.6 percent of his passes in the first five games. In the last six games -- three of them victories -- he hit 62.3 percent.

That was a confirmation of the skills the Bucs saw when they took Dilfer with the sixth pick in the 1994 draft.

"What we saw when we drafted Trent was a big man in size who had a little athleticism and was extremely accurate in college," McKay said. "What we had not seen here was accuracy. He was not an accurate passer.

"Now he's showing us the talents he had in college have carried over Sometimes we went home at night and said, 'Where did those talents go?' "

Dilfer's improvement carried over to the defense, as well. With fewer turnovers and more possession time, the defense struck a chord of consistency. The Bucs became the first NFC team since Dallas in 1992 to hold four straight opponents under 14 points. Yet they lost three of those games because the offense couldn't generate more than 10.

Counting last week's win, the Bucs have held six straight teams to 17 points or less, and have held five in a row under 300 total yards. In the past five games, the defense has risen from a ranking of 27th in the NFL to 12th.

Winning on the road in San Diego, overcoming a two-touchdown deficit, was viewed by some as a benchmark victory.

"I felt our guys really grew a step facing some adversity and coming through it," Dungy said. "We've been talking about that for a long time, ever since training camp, that we hadn't been particularly good when things hadn't gone our way."

After the win at San Diego, Dilfer put an even more optimistic spin on the Bucs' recent turnaround.

"We're going to look back at this season one day when we accomplish what we want to accomplish and be thankful for these times," he said. "These are the times that mold the character of teams that win championships."

Turning it around

As quarterback Trent Dilfer's accuracy improved this season, so have the Bucs. Here's a look at Dilfer's five-game performance before the team's bye week Oct. 6, and his six games since then:

First five games

Att., Comp., Pct., Yds., TDs, Ints, QB rating, W-L

146, 68, 46.6, 736, 1, 10, 35.8, 0-5

Last six games

Att., Comp., Pct., Yds., TDs, Ints, QB rating, W-L

199, 124, 62.3, 1,314, 7, 5, 84.2, 3-3

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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