TAMPA, Fla. — This story was supposed to center on Vinny Testaverde.
Midway through the 1987 season, any profile of Tampa Bay's starting quarterback figured to highlight Testaverde's rookie year. When a Heisman Trophy winner joins a 2-14 club as the first pick in the NFL draft, the paying customers assume they will get a long look at the new kid in town.
Sorry, kid. Testaverde has thrown just four passes all year and the immediate prognosis calls for more bench time. The old kid in town, 11-year veteran Steve DeBerg, has overcome a shaky knee and a shaky past to author one of the league's most intriguing story lines.
"Things seem to be going my way this year," says the NFC's No. 3 passer. "My confidence is flowing right now and that's a reflection of the way I've trained in the off-season. I feel so good about the way I prepared for this season and right now, I can't wait to get to the stadium every Sunday. Heck, I can't even wait to get to practice."
At the age of 33, DeBerg has already carved out an impressive legacy as quarterback tutor. One year after setting NFL records for pass attempts and completions with San Francisco, DeBerg was replaced by Joe Montana and dealt in 1981 to Denver, where John Elway arrived a year later. Then DeBerg led the Buccaneer offense to 17 club records in 1984 before another high-salaried phenom, Steve Young, arrived on the scene.
"Heading into this season, we still had Steve Young, myself and Vinny," DeBerg says. "I felt the Bucs would have to make a move between Young and myself and I felt it would be Young that left because of my experience."
Young was dispatched to the 49ers and DeBerg began a rigorous training regimen, lifting weights under the stern guidance of new Coach Ray Perkins. He outplayed Testaverde in the exhibition season and was named to start the opener against Atlanta. A 48-10 rout of the Falcons confirmed to Perkins he had made the right choice.
"I'm proud for Steve DeBerg," says Perkins, who has the Buccaneers in contention for a wild card playoff berth with a 4-3 mark. "In our mini-camps, I wasn't really impressed with either quarterback and I wasn't that impressed with DeBerg in the first two weeks of training camp. But I kept asking him to do certain things and he's done it. He has a great understanding of the pro passing game and he's like a coach on the field."
DeBerg is interested in a coaching career, but right now, he's too busy bewildering defenses. He completed 59% of his pass attempts for 974 yards and eight touchdowns in just four games. DeBerg lost three weeks to the players' strike, but he used that time to recuperate from a knee injury suffered against Chicago Sept. 20.
"The last two years here, we've just been too basic on offense," says DeBerg, who was yanked as a starter by Leeman Bennett after two games last year. "At this level, we got so predictable that it became easy to defend us. Right now, defenses are having a hard time against the Buccaneers. We're using varying formations and motions and when I've been involved with that type of offense, that's when I've had my success."
In last week's 23-17 victory against Green Bay, the Buccaneers were struggling through a typical fourth-quarter letdown when DeBerg took charge in the final minutes. DeBerg's favorite target, tight end Calvin Magee, caught a pair of third-down passes as Tampa Bay ran out the clock and matched its combined victory total for the past two seasons.
"I haven't been associated with great teams and that's been frustrating," says DeBerg, looking back on a pro career that ended almost as soon as it began. "I've been happy with my career, though. Remember, I wasn't even supposed to play in this league."
DeBerg was selected by Dallas in the 10th round of the 1977 draft out of San Jose State and was cut in training camp before landing in San Francisco. He has built a reputation as a pocket passer with a deft touch who has been prone to the critical mistake.
Right now, the only embarrassing mistake involving DeBerg is the one made by his detractors. Each Sunday, Testaverde can be seen standing on the Buccaneer sidelines, charting DeBerg's progress.
"I realize I might spend the rest of my career backing up Testaverde," DeBerg says. "This might be my last year as a starter . . . I'm gonna make the most of it."