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Dissecting the Bucs: How did it get so bad?

Any team like Tampa Bay, which finds itself on a slide before midseason, plays the rest of the year under a microscope.

But studying reasons for the Bucs' 2-5 start can be an awfully weird science.

Do you begin with Sam Wyche, the self-styled offensive innovator whose club is averaging less than two touchdowns?

Do you blame the Bucs' green quarterbacks?

Do you wonder why free-agency money bought Tampa Bay more talent, but not more wins? And exactly why is it so hard for draft picks to sneak onto the field?

There are plenty of unanswered questions, but these truths even the Bucs hold to be self-evident.

"We're not competitive," Bucs vice president Richard McKay said. "We didn't anticipate that. That's not how we thought the season was going to go. But that's the nature of the game. Sometimes those things happen and the teams that are successful are the ones that take that, put it behind them and play the next game.

"Sam did a great job last year keeping this team focused and finishing the season focused. I give him a lot of credit because I've seen teams in this league who've not done it, that will get caught up in the media discussions of what's going to happen to the coach or what's going to happen to the players.

"That's really where we are as an organization _ staying focused on this season and what lies ahead. Because there's a lot of football left. But make no bones about it that we're disappointed we're 2-5."

Worse yet, in their past three road games, the Bucs have been outscored 105-32.

With three straight away dates looming in November, the Bucs' season and perhaps Wyche's future boil down to a two-game homestand _ this afternoon against the Minnesota Vikings, and next Sunday versus the Chicago Bears.

Everybody has an opinion on why the Bucs appear to be steamrolling to their 12th consecutive double-digit losing season. But let's examine a few of the more popular concerns.

THEORY 1 _ The young guns at quarterback are misfiring:

When the Bucs drafted Trent Dilfer with the sixth overall pick and signed him to an eight-year, $16.5-million contract _ the richest in team history _ everyone knew it was only a matter of time before he took over the controls of the offense.

But what was overlooked is that Craig Erickson is only 25, a peach-fuzzed passer and not the grizzled veteran who can steady a team until the rookie takes over.

"Our biggest growing problem right now is young quarterbacks," defensive coordinator Floyd Peters said. "Wherever there's hope, there's a team with a proven quarterback _ the Elways, the Marinos. You can see the difference with their (Vikings) team now. They came in here last year with (Sean) Salisbury. They'd try to throw to Cris Carter and Salisbury would overthrow him by five yards and he'd be wide open and would just throw his hands up. Now all of a sudden you've got them throwing it right on the money. (Warren) Moon adds something to that football team."

Erickson has a shiny 90.7 rating and has thrown just one interception in 165 attempts _ a pace that would set an NFL record. But his determination to prevent turnovers may have come with a price: it's made him hesitant to make plays.

Erickson may have been hearing footsteps when he struggled to the worst start of his career Oct. 9 at Atlanta. Dilfer, despite two weeks to prepare for the 49ers, simply was in over his head in his first start.

The worst part, according to Erickson, is that the Bucs take themselves out of games early.

"That's the most disappointing thing," he said. "When you get down by 30 points and you're just beginning the fourth quarter, that's very frustrating. That's not the way it should be."

THEORY 2: The last two drafts have been duds:

Only defensive linemen Eric Curry and Chidi Ahanotu start from the classes of '93 and '94.

Curry, the first-round pick from Alabama, has 10 tackles and one sack this season and has been a colossal disappointment.

Wyche also has been reluctant to start tailback Errict Rhett and receiver Horace Copeland, despite some apparent big-play abilities.

The reason is coaches often feel more comfortable relying on veterans, such as Charles Wilson and Vince Workman, to prevent youthful mistakes.

But the Bucs' front office believes the development of young players has to be accelerated _ particularly since the team is losing ballgames.

"We'll have to see as the year progresses and into next year as to whether you're right or wrong on certain draft picks and on how people develop," McKay said. "I see a lot of criticism being thrown Eric Curry's way. I'm not concerned about Eric Curry. It's way too early to be concerned about Eric Curry in terms of what kind of player he's going to be. Now if next year goes along and Eric Curry hasn't progressed, maybe you start to get concerned.

"I've seen in the past year that way too much panic occurred about players and about players' futures, and typically what that ends up developing is a mistake. And the mistake is that you give up on a player, send him down the road, somebody else takes him and develops him and he ends up playing pretty well against you."

THEORY 3: Bucs free agents haven't earned their money:

One of the byproducts of free agency is that teams lack cohesiveness.

In the past two seasons, the Bucs have added nine new players on defense _ six of them free agents. An injury to middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson helped account for the team's slide on defense from sixth in the league to 24th.

The Bucs also aren't getting much return from their $1.1-million investment in linebacker Lonnie Marts, and they have waived free-agent defensive end Jeff Hunter.

"You're seeing a lot of different ballplayers being thrown together for a short period of time," Peters said. "Good teams are built through a four- or five-year period where you have good drafts. (That leads to) a veteran group that's played together, and they know how to react.

"Now (in Tampa Bay) you've got to try to improve the young guys while bringing in strange veterans they don't know yet, and they've got to find each other. I think you'll see a lot of teams that are 2-5 and 3-4 flip-flop. I hope we're one of them."

THEORY 4: Bucs players are used to losing and are in it for a paycheck:

It's a common perception in the Bucs' locker room and one perpetuated by Wyche's coaching style that deflects all criticism from his players.

It's also more prevalent in an era of free agency and million-dollar contracts.

But the Bucs have gone to great lengths to surround themselves with highly motivated players like Nickerson and Thomas Everett who keep the others in line.

"I don't try to judge how much somebody else cares," 14-year veteran tackle Tim Irwin said. "I don't point a finger at a guy and say, "He don't give a damn that we lost', because he's laughing on the way home. Maybe he cares, but maybe he moves on in a different way. They used to talk about a quarterback who played here getting wild on the plane after losses. I know he cared as much as anybody. He loved to win and hated to lose. He fought his a-- off. But after it's over, it's like spilled milk. You can't get it back."

If there is a silver lining it's that the Bucs have three home games in December and two games remaining with the Washington Redskins. The Bucs also have avoided season-ending injuries.

"Last year, we were pretty banged up and lost a lot of players," McKay said. "This year, we've had a lot of nagging injuries and we've had some games missed. But, knock on wood, we haven't had the devastating injuries, so it does give us a good opportunity to make a run at it. And I think the division is a long way from being decided."

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