Though Vinny Testaverde had been allowed only to hold the wheel of the Buccaneers' new offense for five games, he stole the keys from his head coach Sunday and took his team on two wild drives against the Indianapolis Colts.
With Tampa Bay at its own 10-yard line and leading 14-7 in the second quarter, Testaverde ventured out on his own by ignoring Sam Wyche and calling six consecutive passing plays before he was finally sacked.
"My first reaction? Well, it was, "What are you doing out there?'
" Wyche said. "We wondered what was going through his mind."
The drive ended harmlessly enough when Bucs placekicker Ken Willis missed a 49-yard field-goal attempt wide left. But Testaverde wasn't prepared for the nasty turn the game took in the second half.
With the Bucs trailing 17-14 early in the fourth quarter and facing second and 2 from their own 39-yard line, Testaverde went solo again. He called for a running play to James Brooks, who gained only a yard.
Before Wyche could insert short-yardage back Reggie Cobb, Testaverde ordered a quick snap on third down and Brooks was stripped of the ball by Indianapolis linebacker Quentin Coryatt _ a fumble which led to a Colts touchdown.
"(The fumble) just kind of magnifies it," Testaverde said of his unauthorized play-calling. "I was thinking about going to the other bench."
According to Wyche, Testaverde's freelancing was not responsible for the Bucs' 24-14 loss. But it may have served as a crossroads in the development of Tampa Bay's enigmatic quarterback.
After all, here was Testaverde, whose career seemed in disrepair until Wyche was hired to try to resurrect it this season, taking the controls of a sophisticated offense that he'd only been a passenger in for five regular-season games.
"You just can't go out and start doing your own thing and calling your own plays, especially if he doesn't know about it," Testaverde said. "If he said, "Go ahead,' it'd be one thing."
Ever the optimist, Wyche said Testaverde's forays Sunday demonstrated that the oft-maligned quarterback is feeling more comfortable under the new system.
"Not that I'm being forgiving in any way, I understand what was going through his heart," Wyche said. "On the good side, that was an awful positive thing for Vinny. Because I've had nobody around here tell me Vinny would do something bold like that. I want him to be able to do that, but it's got to be under certain parameters.
"I don't think it cost us this game, but over a period of time if it happened, it might."
What prompted Testaverde to call his own plays without warning Wyche was that he caught the Colts locked in a three-deep zone and thought he could find some soft passing spots using wideouts Mark Carrier and Lawrence Dawsey.
With Wyche and his staff trying to follow along on the sidelines, Testaverde completed three consecutive passes and the Colts were hit with an interference penalty on Carrier to move the ball from the Tampa Bay 10 to the Indianapolis 29.
"We could tell by the formation that it was either this or that," Wyche said. "Frankly, you could hear enough to figure it out. We were trying to read the coverage. We said, "Okay, that was good. Looks like he's going to get the three-deep zone. It's a good call so far.'
"My only change of the play selection would've been, after a couple or three times, we needed to counter the pass because they were getting closer and closer and closer to getting to him and we needed to run a quick trap, or a draw or just run the ball. He said they were going right to an automatic call and we knew what the coverage was. But they were also figuring out what we were doing and they were pinning their ears back and getting closer and closer and closer and finally they got to him."
On first down from the 29, Testaverde was sacked for a 12-yard loss and Willis' attempt was nearly blocked.
Surprisingly, Testaverde said Wyche was composed when he reached the sideline.
"That's what he told me when I came off: "If you're going to do it, just let me know,' " Testaverde said. "Tell me you've got the play. Don't let me sit over there not knowing the play, ready to send people in. He could've sent a whole change of people in and here I am snapping the ball with 14 people on the field. It wouldn't have looked too good."
In fact, Wyche said he took the wrong path in preparing his team for the Colts.
"I think we hit a bump in the road, but our wheels didn't come off," Wyche said. "And little things like Vinny calling a few plays on his own if we'd won that ballgame, we'd be talking about the progress he's made.
"I told the team today after practice, "I'm learning about you.' And somewhere along the line, it may cost us a game or two. Maybe this one cost us a game because I wasted no time in telling you we didn't have a winning practice on Thursday. And in doing so, I may have shaken your confidence, or I may have shaken your confidence you thought I had in you.
"The loss is on my shoulders. Every week you've got a different hook. Every week you've got a different psychological approach to the game. Sometimes you miss. And I think I missed this time."
Bucs waive two
TAMPA _ The Bucs on Wednesday released veteran fullback Alonzo Highsmith and offensive lineman Brian Blados. Highsmith, who started the first five games at fullback before being pulled from the lineup in the first half of Sunday's 24-14 loss to Indianapolis, became expendable by the emergence of rookie Anthony McDowell. Blados, an ex-Bengals lineman, was signed two weeks ago as a free agent when the Bucs' line became riddled with injuries. Tampa Bay also re-signed free-agent tight end Todd Harrison.
Giants' Taylor to retire
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, who many regard as the best linebacker ever, Wednesday announced this season will be his last in the NFL. Taylor has hinted since training camp that this would be his last season. But he made it definite late Wednesday. Asked if this would indeed be his last season, Taylor said: "Yeah, definitely. I'm retiring. I think I've had enough." Asked if there was any scenario where he could see himself coming back next year, he said: "At this point, no."
In other Giants news, QB Phil Simms will miss Sunday's game because of a sprained right elbow. Jeff Hostetler will start.
_ The Associated Press contributed to this report.