After a week of hand-wringing, the Tampa Bay Bucs went out Sunday afternoon and decided they had just about enough.
Just enough of a running game behind the tireless Errict Rhett. Just enough turnover-free football out of a rejuvenated Trent Dilfer. Just enough Alvin Harper to finally make a difference. And just enough defense, thanks to cornerback Martin Mayhew's dramatic, game-sealing end-zone interception.
And when it was all said and done in Tampa Bay's wild 14-6 win over Washington, a game played beneath a scorching September sun before a crowd of 49,234, the Bucs had next to nothing left.
Except for a season that will live to see another draining day.
"We've got to do what it takes to win the game," said Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson, describing Washington's 16-play, 79-yard drive that fell a yard shy of a potential game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion. "If it's the last play of the game, let it be the last play of the game. I can take it, as long as we win.
"It came down to the last couple of seconds, but we were up to the challenge. I think it'll give us confidence."
Tampa Bay's inspiring goal-line stand, which ended when Mayhew stepped in front of a Gus Frerotte pass intended for Redskins tight end Coleman Bell with two seconds remaining, certainly did wonders for Dilfer.
"For me, I can't even explain it," said Dilfer, asked about the importance of the Bucs' victory, which evened their record at 2-2. "For the team, (it means) probably just as much. It's not like we're defending Super Bowl champions and if we go 1-3 we can say, "Oh, it's no big deal. People are going to lay down in front of us and we'll win some games.'
"We've got to fight for every win we're going to have this year, and that's just a fact of life. It's nice to be .500 again."
The Bucs' followed their blueprint to break even to near perfection. Having committed 11 turnovers, surrendered 11 sacks, and scored just one touchdown in losses to the Browns and Bears, Tampa Bay was determined to get back to its run-oriented, low-risk offensive game plan against Washington (1-3).
And get some return on the big-money contract handed to Harper, whose $3-million signing bonus equated to $1-million for every game missed with a right ankle sprain.
On all fronts, the Bucs were effective, at least in the second half, when they overcame the Redskins' 6-0 halftime lead with a pair of long touchdown drives. Part A of the plan was to get the ball to Rhett, whose 27 carries for 104 yards and one touchdown (a 10-yard third-quarter run) gave him his fifth career 100-yard game, and first since running for 119 yards on 31 carries in a Week 14 win against the Rams last December.
"What it comes down to is players have to make plays," Dilfer said. "And Errict Rhett ran over more Redskins today than I've ever seen a running back run over."
The other spotlight, of course, fell on Dilfer, whose four-interception self-destruction against the Bears last week left him vulnerable to a weeklong barrage of pop psychology (including some from his step-pop).
His response was a better-safe-than-sorry 13-of-18 day for 136 yards, with one touchdown pass, no interceptions, two sacks and a long gain of 20 yards. His 72.3 completion percentage was a career high and included a streak of nine straight completions.
"We asked him this time to really discipline himself," Bucs coach Sam Wyche said. "We were going to try and keep that passing game in that 20-(pass) range, and we had only 18 so that's good for us."
And good for Dilfer, too.
"I don't mind only throwing 18 times if we win the football game," he said. "I'm just really thankful that we were able to come back like this. Especially that I was able to come back and not make mistakes, and do my part in helping this team win. I felt like I didn't make a single stupid throw today. I was very careful with the football, but I wasn't cowardly with it."
None of Dilfer's passes were any braver or bigger than the 7-yard touchdown pass to Harper on the first play of the fourth quarter, giving Tampa Bay its ultimate eight-point cushion. Hotly disputed, because side judge Doug Toole initially called Harper out of bounds on the catch, the play later was reversed when it was ruled that Redskins cornerback Darrell Green had forced Harper out with contact in the corner of the end zone.
Too late for Harper, as it turned out. Incensed with the call, he charged head linesman Earnie Frantz, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and an automatic game ejection when he grabbed Frantz by the shoulder and swung him around.
He left the game with three receptions for 27 yards, tying for the team-high lead in catches with Courtney Hawkins (three for 24).
"I did make the big play, the play that they expect me to make around here," Harper said. "My ankle was hurting me the whole day, but it was showtime, with 50,000 people in the stands. That's my kind of day."
Harper's highlight wasn't the day's best drama. That ultimately came from the defense, a unit that allowed 311 yards of offense and two Eddie Murray field goals of 37 and 28 yards, but kept the Redskins out of the end zone.
Giving ground furiously to Washington quarterback Frerotte (21-of-40 for 230 yards, three sacks and one interception) on the game's final drive, the defense was both lucky and good. A play before Mayhew stepped in front of Bell (an ex-Jefferson High standout), wide-open Redskins fullback Cedric Smith dropped a sure touchdown.
"Those kind of games give you joy, just because you left everything out on the field," said Bucs linebacker Lonnie Marts, who went through five intravenous bags of fluids in the heat. "It was a great play by Martin. He just read the quarterback. On that last drive, those last 13 seconds seem to take forever, man."
Too long, as it turned out, for Dilfer's nerves.
"I watched it on the (JumboTron) screen," he said. "I can't handle watching it in real life. I was nervous. I wanted to win this game so bad it was unbelievable."
Rhett vs. 'Skins
How Bucs running back Errict Rhett has fared against the Redskins in his career:
Game Car Yds TDs Result
12-4-94 40 192 1 W, 26-21
12-18-94 23 64 2 W, 17-14
9-24-95 27 104 1 W, 14- 6
This is only the eighth time the Bucs have won two or more games in September. Their other starts and finishes:
Year Start Finish
1992 3-1 5-11
1990 3-1 6-10
1989 2-2 5-11
1987 2-2 4-11
1981 2-2 9-7
1980 2-2 5-10-1
1979 4-0 10-6
1978 2-2 5-11
Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson's tackles by game: