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Buccaneers Make Things Perfectly Clear

Pro football: The Dolphins become the latest victim as upstart Tampa Bay wins, 31-21, in moving to a 4-0 start.

September 22, 1997|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAMPA — Mike Alstott is still plowing forward, carrying half the Miami Dolphin team with him into the night, and falling down for no one.

What a ride--hop aboard, something special is happening here with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, potentially one of those wonderful moments in sports when a collection of nobodies become somebody quite magical overnight.

Explosive, and yet disciplined and stubbornly determined, there is just no stopping the Pewter Pirates, who never once had to punt Sunday night, introducing themselves before a national TV audience as America's new darlings and destroying their Florida-state brethren, the Dolphins, 31-21, before a team record 73,314 howling fans in Houlihan's Stadium.

"Anyone watching this game on TV had to come away saying Tampa Bay is for real," Buccaneer linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "They have to be saying Tampa Bay is a team to be reckoned with."

Shocking stuff: Quarterback Trent Dilfer totally outplays Dan Marino and throws four touchdown passes, and despite repeated pinching, this is no dream.

"I've never seen this stadium rocking like that," Buccaneer safety John Lynch said. "In the past we would have a lot of people here and 40% of them might be Packers' fans. Looking up into the stands tonight it was all Buccaneer red and pewter."

Still looking for their first winning record since the strike-shortened 1982 season, the Buccaneers are 4-0 in their new uniforms, the only undefeated team in the NFC and 9-2 in their last 11 games under miracle worker Tony Dungy.

Dungy, the third choice behind Miami's Jimmy Johnson and Florida's Steve Spurrier is 10-10 as coach of the Buccaneers, and how amazing is that? Johnson has the same record in his two years to date in Miami.

"And I think we're going to get better," said Dungy, and there's a scary thought for the rest of the NFL. "Looking at the schedule playing Miami and San Francisco and two division teams on the road to start the season I think we would have won a lot of money in Vegas if someone had said we were going to go 4-0."

What an electric atmosphere--the fans were doing "The Wave," and maybe everywhere else that is a thing of the past, but not for these people who have been starved for a party.

"Every time I stepped on the field I got goosebumps," said Alstott, the Buccaneers' bully fullback, who caught two passes for touchdowns and ran 18 times for 95 yards.

Vince Lombardi would love it: a bruising Alstott left, a bruising Alstott right, helmet to helmet with no surrender. A week ago he is stopped at the goal line by a stiff Minnesota defense, but his legs keep churning, breaking loose and then running through one tackle, and then another before pushing a defender with him into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown.

"The best run I ever saw," said John McKay, former Tampa and USC coach, who has directed some of the game's best running backs.

Run the mule, push him hard and then hand it to Warrick Dunn, and this isn't fair.

"They have one guy to slash and another guy to pound," Miami running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar said. "Our defense just couldn't handle it."

Four games into his professional career and Dunn is long gone already as a star, a touchdown in the making every time he touches the football: Third and 29 yards to go in the fourth quarter, and Dunn takes a five-yard screen pass and delivers a death blow to Miami and Coach Jimmy Johnson with a 58-yard touchdown.

"Just awesome," says Dunn, and rather than talk about himself, he points across the locker room to Dilfer, who has never really been described in such a manner before.

Dilfer completed 13 of his first 15 passes to build a 14-7 halftime advantage despite a serious blow to his left knee, forcing him from the game momentarily.

"I was scared," Dilfer said. "It was a [Mark] Brunell type of hit. It went straight back and I felt sharp pain, but didn't hear a pop. I just told myself it was going to feel better, and so I went back in."

Based on past performances that would have been good news for the Dolphins, but either this is an impostor or a radically improved Trent Dilfer.

First and 10 at the Dolphin 38-yard line in the third quarter, and Miami remained in pursuit, until Dilfer let loose with the kind of pass that can signal the complete transformation from poor wretch to big-league quarterback.

Faking a handoff to Dunn, enough to freeze any defense, he faded back and then unleased a mighty throw to the back of the end zone to yet another rookie talent, wide receiver Reidel Anthony, to give Tampa a commanding 24-7 lead.

"I can't tell you how excited I am for Reidel; I don't know if he likes me a whole lot because I've really been on him," said Dilfer, now sounding more like Marino. "The last few weeks I've been telling him we need for him to make some plays. And you know what, he was huge tonight."

They all were, tying a club-record with their fifth consecutive victory victory going back to last season, and remaining the story of the year in the NFL. Twelve games to go, but six of them will come against teams with a combined record of 2-17, and the fun is just beginning.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

NFL WEEK 4

* Tampa Bay: 31

* Miami: 21

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* New York Jets: 23

* Oakland: 22

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* Seattle: 26

* San Diego: 22

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* Green Bay: 38

* Minnesota: 32

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* Denver: 38

* Cincinnati: 20

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* San Francisco: 34

* Atlanta: 7

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* St. Louis: 13

* New York Giants: 3

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* Buffalo: 37

* Indianapolis: 35

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* Kansas City: 35

* Carolina: 14

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* Baltimore: 36

* Tennessee: 10

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* New England: 31

* Chicago: 3

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* New Orleans: 35

* Detroit: 17

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