Countdown to Vinny Testaverde continues, even though the stubborn new coach uses fractions-- 10 . . . 9 7/8 . . . 9 3/4 . . . --to get there. Either that, or the incumbent quarterback is having the year of his career.
Just last week at Tampa Stadium, Buccaneer fans serenaded Coach Ray Perkins and starting quarterback Steve DeBerg with a simple choral arrangement. Everyone now: "We want Vinny! We want Vinny!"
It went on until Perkins and DeBerg were safely inside the Buccaneer locker room, far, far away from a scoreboard that read, San Francisco 49ers 24, Buccaneers 10. The loss lowered Tampa Bay's record to 4-6 and inspired new demands for some cameo appearances by Testaverde.
After all, reasoned Buccaneer fans, Testaverde's Heisman Trophy doesn't feature a bronzed player holding a clipboard. And since when do you pay a guy $8 million and use him as sideline decoration?
Perkins responded by later announcing that DeBerg once again would start for the Buccaneers, this time against the Rams at Anaheim Stadium Sunday.
"Right, wrong or indifferent, I'm going to do it my way," Perkins said.
Meanwhile, DeBerg, 33, found himself defending a season that includes 14 touchdown passes, which is among the conference leaders, and an 89.9 passing rating, which is almost 40 points better than Ram quarterback Jim Everett's.
DeBerg has thrown only six interceptions and has made do with a rushing attack that has gained only 68 more yards than Ram Charles White this season. And White has had 102 fewer carries than Buccaneer runners.
DeBerg, of course, has seen this soap opera before. Different characters, but the same ending. Never fails. Ask him the last time a quarterback job was truly his and DeBerg laughs.
"Savanna High, really," he said. "That was my most secure year of all of them."
Depending on the story line, DeBerg usually inches his way to a starting position, only to be joined by that year's whiz kid.
In San Francisco, it was Joe Montana.
In Denver, it was John Elway.
In Tampa, it was Steve Young, followed soon thereafter by Testaverde. This latest development prompted DeBerg's favorite new saying, "If you want the next savior of your franchise, just trade for me."
About the last thing Perkins wants these days is a quarterback controversy. But here it is, more apparent than ever as the Buccaneers slip slowly backward.
What to do? So far, Perkins has stuck with honesty. A sampling:
--On DeBerg:"Quite frankly, before training camp ever started, I thought (Testaverde) would probably take the reins fairly early in the season. But it's the guy who plays on the highest level . . . is the guy who plays, regardless of the position."
--On Testaverde: "I'd like to see him play, just like everybody else would. But I'm thinking of not just this game, not just the rest of this season, but I'm thinking about next year and the year after. I'm thinking about our team overall and what gives us the best chance to win right now. And I think DeBerg's experience has to give us a little bit of an edge."
--On Tampa Bay's running game: "We haven't run since we started training camp. We don't have a great running back, for one thing. I think James Wilder is a good back. I think he's playing on a good level for us."
This is Perkins' way of easing the pressure on DeBerg, who has done nothing more than be in the right place at the wrong time. Truth is, though, there hasn't been this much anticipation in Tampa since then-Buccaneer Coach John McKay was asked what he thought about his team's execution. "I'm for it," he said.
Same goes for DeBerg's standing. Tampa Bay fans respect his style, sympathize with his problem, applaud his class, but when it comes to Testaverde, well, they're for it.
DeBerg understands. After stays and dismissals in San Francisco, where 49er Coach Bill Walsh was kind enough to be quoted as saying, "(DeBerg) plays just well enough to get you beat," to Denver, DeBerg has seen and heard most everything. He quit taking it personally some time after Denver.
"I feel like I'm an expert at this," he said. "There aren't any surprises anymore. I know what to expect. I know how to handle the situation in a positive way. I don't have as hard a time as I would have early in my career."
That doesn't make the circumstances entirely agreeable, though. Earlier this week, DeBerg's wife, Marcia, was frustrated by the constant criticism. Why, she asked, couldn't fans let DeBerg perform without the constant second-guessing?
Answered DeBerg: "Say we had Bo Jackson on our team, a million-dollar running back, Heisman Trophy type of player. And he's not getting a chance to play because he's playing the same position as James Wilder and James Wilder is having a real good year. Fans would be saying, 'We want to see this great football player.'
"It's very simple to understand if you just think about it. Fans just want to see how really good is a million-dollar quarterback. If I'm making half of that, he must be twice as good as me."