TAMPA, FLA., NOV. 11 -- Last April, Steve DeBerg had the uncomfortable feeling he was being followed again. After a strange, twisting ride through 11 seasons in the National Football League, the veteran quarterback checked his rear-view mirror -- and found another rookie phenom gaining in the fast lane.
This one drove a 1986 Heisman, fueled by an $8.2 million contract and high-octane hype from his college days at the University of Miami. There was little doubt that Vinny Testaverde would soon bump DeBerg from the lead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After all, every time DeBerg got his game in gear, along came some young hotshot: Joe Montana with San Francisco in 1979; John Elway with Denver in 1983; Steve Young with Tampa Bay in 1985.
"If you want the next savior of your franchise, just trade for me," he joked when Testaverde was signed.
Instead, the 33-year-old Californian never has given Testaverde a chance to get seriously in the running. Testaverde showed some spark early, throwing three fourth-quarter touchdowns in his preseason debut. But following several shaky efforts by the heralded No. 1 pick, new coach Ray Perkins stuck to an offseason promise: he gave the starting job to the player he felt would be best-equipped to lead and win.
So Testaverde remains the franchise's future, while DeBerg dominates its present with the best football of his life.
He is the player most responsible for Tampa Bay's unexpected resurgence. The team that finished 2-14 in 1983, 1985 and 1986 now stands 4-4. DeBerg has 11 touchdown passes in five games, 60 percent completions and the third-best passer rating in the NFL, 93.9, behind Montana and Miami's Dan Marino.
"I'm proud of Steve DeBerg," says Perkins. "He has a great understanding of the pro passing game, and he's like a coach on the field."
Granted, the Buccaneers crashed embarrassingly Sunday in St. Louis, squandering a 28-3 lead in the fourth quarter and losing, 31-28. But the greatest second-half collapse in NFL history was hardly DeBerg's fault. He passed for three touchdowns, and completed 24 of 37 passes for 303 yards.
And as the Buccaneers enter the toughest stretch of their schedule (the Vikings and 49ers at home; the Rams and Saints on the road), the best hope for their first winning season since 1982 is an easygoing man with the chiseled, sandy-haired look of a lifeguard.
"The way I see it, this could be my last shot as a starter," he said this week. "Who knows what will happen next year. Vinny could be ready to go, and I'll be in the background. So my goal is just to make the most of this season and really enjoy things."
From the time Perkins took DeBerg aside in April, and insisted the competition for starter was wide open, DeBerg spent hours scrutinizing the playbook and game films. He followed a rigorous new weight-lifting regimen, and ran constantly.
"I still don't know exactly why I committed myself so totally like that, because I've been promised a chance to compete before -- and it didn't turn out that way," he said. "There were a lot of people very, very close to me who thought I was crazy. They said I was wasting my time, and asking me why I was putting so much effort into it when I wasn't going to get a chance."
DeBerg has been fighting for a chance since 1977, when the Dallas Cowboys plucked him out of San Jose State as a 10th-round afterthought. With Roger Staubach and Danny White ahead of him, DeBerg was quickly discarded.
"I remember feeling devastated," he said.
He would have felt worse had he known it was the start of a painful pattern. DeBerg wound up in San Francisco in 1978 and, under the guidance of first-year head coach Bill Walsh in 1979, passed for 3,652 yards. But Walsh wasn't sold on DeBerg's ability. He drafted Montana in '79 and traded DeBerg to Denver after the 1980 season.
He completed nearly 60 percent of his passes in 1982. But in 1983, the Broncos obtained No. 1 pick Elway in a trade with Baltimore. Elway was rushed into action that season, much to DeBerg's dismay. When the move backfired, Coach Dan Reeves turned to DeBerg to bail out the offense.
DeBerg got the Broncos into the playoffs, but he wanted out after that. Reeves obliged by trading him to Tampa Bay in 1984. It took three games for DeBerg to unseat incumbent Jack Thompson, and he quickly provided the steadiest offensive leadership since Doug Williams, who had left the club in 1983 after a contract dispute.
But when 1985 rolled around, the roster boasted a new Steve, as in $40 million Young from the USFL. "Steve Old," as DeBerg jokingly called himself, was benched late in '85 and sat most of '86.
Young didn't last long, though. He was traded to the 49ers to make room for Testaverde. While the football world watched the rookie, DeBerg quietly got his jump.
He stunned everyone with a club-record five touchdowns in the season-opening 48-10 victory over Atlanta. He sprained a knee in a week two loss in Chicago. Testaverde saw his only action in that game, hitting one of four passes for 14 yards. Had the three-week strike not followed, Testaverde might well have taken over. Instead, DeBerg had three games to heal.
"I've really learned a lot from Steve," said Testaverde. And DeBerg says he'll gladly continue to help Testaverde when the time comes to trade places. "If I'm going to back him up . . . I want him to be the best quarterback in the league," DeBerg said.
Of course, DeBerg knows by now not to try to predict his future.
"Who knows, there could be another team with quarterback problems that might want my help," he said. "And they know that if I come, the next Joe Namath will be on his way."