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Can Bucs manage to rebound?

Let's get personal about the Tampa Bay Bucs. They're not a bunch of bad, shiftless guys. They do care. They do hurt. They're embarrassed. October underachieving is gnawing at their psyches. Their egos bleed. But will they rebound?

It's not Tampa Bay's record that so disappoints, it's how the Bucs have squandered to arrive at 4-4. They ought to be 6-2, minimum. After half a season, they've faced nobody with a winning record.

"Nasty Boys" cometh Sunday, Chicago (6-1) comes blustering into Tampa Stadium, drooling to avenge two 1989 losses to its southerly rival. Tampa Bay follows with consecutive road missions against New Orleans, San Francisco and Green Bay.

At November's doorstep, the Bucs are at .500, second to Chicago in the NFC Central. Playoffs are still within reach. A 9-7 record might do it, which means Tampa Bay must go 5-for-8 from here on. Bad news is, the locals have been stumbling backward like a disoriented, sucker-punched drunk.

Against the Chargers, we saw Tampa Bay all but devoid of confidence, motivation and life. Just the scheme to transform 3-1 September zeal into a 4-8 turkey by Thanksgiving weekend.

Losing once to Dallas can be an accident of parity, but twice is a disgrace. Falling in San Diego isn't shameful, unless it is done with 41-10 impotence.

What I'm attempting, on Halloween eve, is to take a hard, fair and constructive look at a Tampa Bay franchise that, for 15 seasons, has averaged one win for every three Sundays.

This year was supposed to be different. Training camp sizzled with visible promise. Talent was deeper, if not in the San Francisco 49ers/New York Giants neighborhoods. Team proprietor Hugh Culverhouse was giddy and predicted an 11-5 record.

Ray Perkins was convinced 1990 would ease Tampa Bay football frustrations. With a rare win at Minnesota, the head coach made an "over the hump" declaration. What we didn't know in September was that these Vikings aren't so hot.

But what about the Bucs? What happened to Perkins' over-the-hump posse? How come they double-dog it against the Cowboys, plus leaving an orange-hued stench in San Diego? If I had answers, and cures, I'd scalp them to Culverhouse for a billion yen.

What I do see, with a football layman's eye, are Bucs shortcomings mental, physical and emotional. They're fiddling with disaster. While it's not unreachable to succeed against the hulking odds of November, it does seem unlikely.

Tampa Bay's special teams are terribly ordinary, and the Bucs' defense remains starless, with an increasingly impatient wait for "impact linebackers" Keith McCants and Broderick Thomas to become worth their millions.

Still, it's the Bucs' offense that most disappoints. Linemen struggle for health and respectability, which isn't unexpected. But the legitimate raw talent resides at so-called "skill positions," from which dividends have been most inconsistent.

Gary Anderson is a unique act, but can a willowy 180-pound body withstand the constant pounding of running in brutal tackle-to-tackle traffic? Shouldn't that be the work of a bulkier Reggie Cobb, with Anderson functioning more to the outside and as a pass receiver?

Anderson was squashed by his old Chargers teammates while Tampa Bay continued to underutilize the apparent abilities of receivers Mark Carrier, Bruce Hill and Ron Hall.

Establishing the run is admirable and potentially dominating schtick, if you've got 300-pound hogs up front, and the darting power of a Neal Anderson or a Marion Butts to carry the ball 15 to 20 times.

Tampa Bay doesn't yet have adequate run-to-win muscle. I'm no X's-and-O's chemist, but I have a hunch the Bucs would be scarier to enemies if they passed first, aiming to soften defenses for the run.

This goes against Perkins' stubborn grain. But Vinny Testaverde's passing gusto, along with the gifted receivers, Anderson among them, would give the Chicagos far more to fear.

Tampa Stadium is sold out. If the Bucs come out with determined, inventive, effective flair, the chorus of 74,000 will become a screaming ally. But if Tampa Bay's ails of October spill over into a new month, expect disappointment to mushroom, and Sunday will get ugly.

Up to you, Bucs.

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