The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a thoroughly humiliated football team today -- a group portrait of distress, gloom and panic after losing to the lowly San Francisco 49ers, 23-7, thereby failing miserably for the third straight week to clinch the NFC central Division title.
Quarterback Doug Williams, who threw four interceptions last week and five more in a sorry performance today, burst into tears in the dressing room after the game, a proud man unable to hide his embarrassment.
Coach John McKay, who has watched a team that looked like a Super Bowl contender a month ago collapse in both execution and spirit, declared sarcastically, "What we needed was Knute Rockne, but he wasn't here."
Linebacker David Lewis took a deep, disgusted breath and pronounced the inescapable, but usually forbidden, conclusion: "We're choking." He said it three times, lest anyone fail to get his drift.
The Buccaneers -- who were born four years ago and nearly drowned at baptism, losing their first 26 games -- have suddenly and inexplicably regressed to the disarray and offensive stagnation of their ludicrous infancy.
After winning their first five games this year and apparently having the championship of their weak division locked up with a 9-3 record, the Bucs now find themselves going into the final week of the regular season with a 9-6 record, acute self-doubts and no guarantee of their first playoff appearance.
Tampa Bay will win the NFC Central if it can beat Kansas City (7-8) at home next Sunday, or if their rival Chicago Bears (9-6), who stayed alive with a 15-14 victory over Green Bay today, lose to St. Louis (5-10).
Should the Bucs lose and the Bears win Sunday, Tampa Bay would not only lose the division title but also be eliminated as a wild card entry.
No one in Tampa Bay is taking anything for granted anymore. Not after the Bucs disappointed their eager-to-celebrate fans by losing to Minnesota, 23-2, and Chicago, 14-0, at home, came here and handed the game to the 49ers with six turnovers and general ineffectiveness on both offense and defense.
"We have proven that we can't play on the road or at home," said the caustic McKay. "What we need next week is a neutral site."
None of the Bucs could or wanted to deny that they stunk up Candlestick Park in losing decisively to the 49ers, who came into the game with the NFL's worst record (1-13) but fired up to win the last home game of retiring superstar O. J. Simpson, a San Francisco native.
Simpson, who was honored in emotional pregame ceremonies, did not play in the first half but went in for injured running back Paul Hofer early in the third quarter and gained 26 yards in six carries.That included a memorable last burst around left end with a pitch-out, wildly cheered by the crowd of 44,506 spectators chanting "Juice, Juice."
Long-suffering 49er fans -- encouraged by quarterback Steve DeBerg's stellar performance in completing 22 of 30 passes for 186 yards and a 19-yard first quarter touchdown to wide receiver Mike Shumann -- tore down the goalposts after the game. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers went grimly to their dressing room and tore down themselves.
"We shouldn't have had to come to San francisco in the situation we're in. And then to come here and LOSE," said Lewis, pausing to exhale frustration and anger. "Man, you've got to look deep down inside yourself. Everybody on this team has to do some soul-searching."
Asked if he thought people were laughing at the Bucs again, so soon after they had seemed to earn respect, he said: "I can't blame them. If all you had to do was win one game out of four, and now you're down to the last one and you still haven't won, wouldn't you laugh? We're either laughing or choking . . . I'd rather use the word choking."
"We say in the locker room, 'Let's go get'em, let's take no captives,' but we lose that intensity before we get on the field," added offensive tackle Daryl Carlton. "When we get out there, it's just the opposite."
So it was today, as San Francisco drove 75 yards in 12 plays following the opening kickoff, scoring on Shumann's catch, then took a 10-0 lead on the first of Ray Wersching's three field goals after linebacker Dan Bunz intercepted a Williams pass on Tampa Bay's third play from scrimmage.
"I have no excuses. I just had a bad day," said second-year man Williams, who threw only 13 interceptions in the Buc's first 13 games. "This has never happened to me before. Usually I rebound after a bad game. But four of the five (interceptions) today were all my fault."
Williams did complete a 57-yard bomb to Isaac Hagins, a 16-yarder on fourth down to Jimmy Giles and a 19-yard touchdown pass to Giles on Tampa Bay's lone scoring drive, in the second quarter. But he wound up completing only 10 of 24 attempts to the right team, for 167 yards, and threw two interceptions in three plays (the first was fumbled on the runback) midway through the final period, effectively killing any comeback hopes.