Trent Dilfer seemed to be just what the Buccaneers needed. Here was a boy quarterback with a shiny new arm making his first NFL start against the 49ers on a sun-kissed day at Candlestick Park.
Head coach Sam Wyche even kept the idea secret until right before game time, so as not to have any smudges on his prized rookie.
So you can understand how it hurt Sunday when the Bucs got a closer look at Dilfer only to discover that their fresh-faced quarterback has a few pimples.
Dilfer struggled through a miserable debut, completing just 7 of 23 passes for 45 yards and one interception before being yanked in the fourth quarter in the Bucs' humbling, bumbling 41-16 loss to San Francisco.
By the time Dilfer's head quit spinning, the Bucs trailed 34-0 and were well on their way to becoming more road kill before Craig Erickson drove his team to two meaningless touchdowns after the issue was settled.
The loss dropped the Bucs to 2-5 and into sole possession of last place in the NFC Central, three games behind Minnesota, which visits Tampa Stadium next week.
Wyche wouldn't name a starter for next week's game against the Vikings, but judging by their performances it appears the ball may go back to Erickson.
"Trent is going to be a fine player," Bucs center Tony Mayberry said. "Nobody can give you what he learned today. You've got to be there. You've got to go to a tough place and play a tough team in a tough situation. Next time that comes around, you've been there. You know how to react.
"It's part of the game. That's why they brought him here. At some point, you've got to step up and play. He'll do fine," Mayberry said.
For the rest of the Bucs _ including Wyche _ the future doesn't smell so rosy.
In a season in which the Bucs' thought they would compete for a playoff spot, they have been outscored 105-32 in their past three road games at Green Bay, Atlanta and San Francisco.
Erickson, who saw his streak of 21 straight starts at quarterback end Sunday, put the season in perspective.
"Our backs aren't just against the wall," he said. "They feel like they're smooshed against it and there's 27 other teams in this league pushing on them."
On Sunday, it was the 49ers' turn.
Quarterback Steve Young performed bloodless laser surgery on the Bucs, completing 20 of 26 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown before sitting down in the fourth quarter.
And despite the return to the lineup of middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, the 49ers ran wild. Running back Ricky Watters rushed for 103 yards and two TDs on 14 carries and the Bucs' defense yielded 181 yards on the ground.
For a Bucs team looking for an identity, they managed to create an ugly one Sunday.
Wyche said he wanted to leave Candlestick with the reputation of being a "tough, mean a--, nasty football team." His team did not disappoint.
Tampa Bay was penalized 111 yards _ including four unsportsmanlike penalties. Wyche cost his team 15 yards for jawing with officials. Bucs tight end Tyji Armstrong and 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer were ejected after a brawl at midfield in the second half.
"You can tell (Wyche) is trying to get them to play hard and be aggressive, but there's a fine line when it comes to that kind of thing," said 49ers center Bart Oates. "They tend to do that extra, annoying stuff."
But the biggest subplot was Wyche's decision to turn to Dilfer, who worked overtime during the bye week to prepare for the 49ers.
He had purchased 109 tickets for friends and relatives who had watched him play just 200 miles away at Fresno State. But Dilfer looked a little rattled from the first snap.
He completed just two of his first nine passes for 2 yards. He overthrew receivers and tried to shoehorn the ball into coverage.
"I was excited about my first start," said Dilfer. "I had high hopes. It was my first start and they messed with me a little bit with their coverages. But the main thing was, we didn't execute."
Dilfer also didn't get much help.
Wide receiver Lawrence Dawsey, making his first appearance in a game since suffering a season-ending knee injury a year ago this month, dropped three passes _ including a 20-yard pass at the San Francisco 30 that would've given the Bucs a field-goal attempt as the half expired.
Dilfer also was blessed with some great field position. The Bucs started at their own 49-, 45-, 41- and 40-yard lines.
Wyche finally pulled the plug on Dilfer after the Bucs picked up a first down by faking a punt by Dan Stryszinski, who lofted a 21-yard pass to safety Marty Carter.
Enter Erickson, who drove the Bucs to their only touchdowns _ a 1-yard run by Errict Rhett and a 34-yard TD catch by Dawsey.
The 49ers, who played as if they were looking ahead to their bye week, did everything in their power to keep the Bucs in the game. But Tampa Bay's defense kept getting in the way.
San Francisco scored its second touchdown on a drive in which it had an interception, fumbled and was twice called for procedure penalties.
How did the Bucs screw that up? Let's count the ways.
Nickerson was called for defensive holding to erase an interception by safety Thomas Everett that would've give the Bucs the ball at midfield.
Three plays later, Nickerson forced Watters to fumble at his own 17, but rather than fall on the ball, Everett tried to scoop it up and whiffed, allowing 49er Brent Jones to smother it.
It must have been veterans day for the Bucs, because it was the experienced guys who cost them.
Safety Barney Bussey set the tone early when he was called for interfering with Watters on the wobbly end of an end-around pass by receiver John Taylor.
Instead of intercepting the ball, the interference led to a 23-yard field goal by Doug Brien.
Wyche defended his decision to start his rookie QB.
"We had two weeks to prepare him for this game and the 49ers have a somewhat more predictable defense than some teams," Wyche said. "We knew we wanted to start him before the season ended, so this was as good a time to play him as any."
Trent Dilfer's day:
Comp. Att. TD Int. Yds.
7 23 0 1 45