It was no secret all week. The Bucs were banged up. Bruce Hill was out and Gary Anderson hobbled. But come late Sunday afternoon, the pain had shifted. By then, the Bucs' backups felt the hurt of an opportunity lost.
Despite strong showings by some of their seldom-used offensive weapons, the Bucs dropped the ball against Dallas for the second time in three weeks. The 17-13 last-second loss took much of the luster off the efforts turned in by those who waited in the wings.
"It's hard to enjoy what success I had today, being we lost the game," said Bucs receiver Danny Peebles, whose six-week regular-season reception drought ended against the Cowboys with five catches for 47 yards and Tampa Bay's lone touchdown. "If we had won the game, I'd be ecstatic. But basically I didn't do enough to win the game. That's how everyone's got to feel. I don't care how many passes I caught, it wasn't enough for us to win the game.
"Offensively we keep hurting ourselves. We'd have a big play, then a flag would bring it back. Once we overcome that, we've got a good nucleus of receivers. We showed that today with a lot of backups in there. If the starters go down, hey, we got guys that can get the job done."
With Hill sidelined (bruised shoulder and a broken finger), Peebles and Co. took turns lining up opposite of Bucs Pro Bowl receiver Mark Carrier (six catches for 113 yards). Together the threesome of Peebles, Willie Drewrey (3 for 39), and Frank Pillow (2 for 45) combined for 10 catches for 131 yards and the touchdown _ eight receptions and 108 yards more than the three reserves had to their credit entering play.
Substitutes played a role in the Bucs backfield as well. Tailback John Harvey started in place of Anderson (bruised leg), and Tampa Bay's high-priced insurance policy, Chris Chandler, took over late for a sore-toed Vinny Testaverde. Harvey's contribution was limited (six rushes for 25 yards), but Chandler came within a last-minute Troy Aikman touchdown toss of getting the win in relief.
"I felt pretty ready," said Chandler, whose first and only completion was a 23-yarder to Pillow, a play that set up the Bucs' go-ahead field goal. "I've always liked going into games (late). It seems a lot more fun and you feel a lot more alive. It's like a switch turns on. So I was real excited going out there hitting that first pass."
Peebles made his impact early, chalking up four of his five grabs on the Bucs' second-quarter 57-yard touchdown drive. Looking almost exclusively Peebles' way, Testaverde found his slender speedster for consecutive gains of 18, 14 and 7 yards.
After a no-gain run attempt by fullback Reggie Cobb, Peebles finished what he had started, snagging a 2-yard pass in the middle of the end zone for a 10-0 Bucs lead with 1:19 to go in the half.
"I think we were pretty much in sync today, Vinny and I," Peebles said. "It felt good to have him throwing my way so much."
No one in the Bucs locker room bemoaned what might have been more than Drewrey, whose potential game-winning 7-yard touchdown pass from Chandler was wiped out by a false start penalty on left tackle Paul Gruber.
"I really can't explain that feeling," said Drewrey, whose catch would have pushed the Bucs up 16-13 with 2:27 remaining. "I'm feeling joy one minute, then all of a sudden it's taken away from me. Chris Chandler put the ball right on me; I make the winning touchdown catch; all of a sudden everybody's celebrating; but then somebody strips it from you. That's never happened to me before.
"We had to settle for the field goal. But it wasn't enough."