TAMPA, Fla. -- As defeats go, the Philadelphia Eagles' 14-13 loss yesterday to the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers was shattering.
Dazed and angry defensive players expressed dismay and disappointment at coach Rich Kotite's super-cautious offensive strategy.
As a unit, the defense had done all it could and more: intercepted three passes, scored a touchdown, sacked Tampa Bay three times for a total of 24 yards, forced four fumbles and recovered three fumbles.
But it wasn't enough.
Kotite's offense ran the ball 39 times, plunging into the line on most of those plays and averaging less than 3 yards per carry. Possessions seemed little better than turnovers for an offense that converted only three of 15 third-down plays (20 percent).
In the fourth quarter, clinging with white knuckles to a fragile 13-0 lead at Tampa Stadium, Kotite launched Heath Sherman like a medicine ball at Tampa's unyielding defensive front 12 times in a row.
"How do you play like that?" asked linebacker Seth Joyner, who voiced what many of his defensive teammates were grumbling about loudly among themselves in the locker room afterward.
"We had less than a two-touchdown lead. So how do you justify playing that conservative for 30 minutes? You can't do that! All you need is a dropped punt or something, or somebody to get beat on a deep touchdown, and they win the game!
"When you completely abandon it all . . . and just say we're going to run the ball first, second, third down and punt it and allow the defense to win the game, you're bargaining for trouble."
With just five minutes left in the game, trouble came in the form of a botched punt play deep in Eagles territory. A quick Tampa touchdown, a failed Eagles possession and a skillful two-minute drill by the Bucs was enough to erase a whole afternoon of careful Kotite play.
Both touchdowns were directed by Chris Chandler, who replaced Vinny Testaverde after he was injured.
And trouble is what's in store for this team with yesterday's bitter loss to the Buccaneers, who had gone into the game 0-5.
The Eagles' respectable 3-3 record belies the awful hole they have foundered in since losing quarterbacks Randall Cunningham and Jim McMahon. Their offense has not scored a touchdown since McMahon led it against the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks ago.
With rookie Brad Goebel at quarterback yesterday, the offense looked like a porcelain stork, afraid to move for fear it might break.
Heading into its toughest three-game stretch of the season -- games against the unbeaten New Orleans Saints, the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants -- this is a divided football team, demoralized by two abysmal offensive efforts in a row, including last Monday night's shutout by the Washington Redskins.
If there was one thing yesterday's loss proved, it's that the best defense in the NFL can't beat even the worst team in the league by itself.
"It's the worst I've ever felt," said Jerome Brown, brooding darkly in a corner of the locker room with his fellow defensive linemen. "We've got to forget about this and keep going. To tell you the truth, I'm embarrassed. I hope the fans stay behind us in Philly."
Until the last five minutes of the game, Kotite's conservative approach worked. Neither team scored in the first half, although the Eagles' defense came close. Middle linebacker Byron Evans intercepted a pass by Vinny Testaverde at Tampa's 27-yard line midway through the second quarter, but then fumbled as he tried to get into the end zone while carrying the ball away from his body in one hand. The Bucs recovered.
Goebel, the 23-year-old free-agent rookie, seemed hesitant but capable in his first start. He completed nine of 20 passes, most of them short sideline passes or quick dumps to his running backs, and was intercepted twice.
The second of the interceptions, late in the second quarter, gave Tampa its first scoring chance. Safety Darrell Fullington picked off the ball at the Eagles' 48, and Testaverde, working the two-minute drill, moved his team to the 14 with 42 seconds remaining. Steve Christie then missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt.
The Bucs' play was so terrible that it seemed to make sense
when Kotite opted to go for a field goal early in the third quarter, after Goebel drove the Eagles to the Tampa 1. Roger Ruzek's kick, which made the score 3-0, looked as if it might be enough.
Inspired defensive play then padded the margin.
First a fumble forced by Brown and recovered by safety Wes Hopkins gave the Eagles the ball on the Buccaneers' 31-yard line. Goebel and the offense couldn't move, but Ruzek kicked a 45-yard field goal to make the score 6-0.
Then Hopkins made the play that could have clinched a victory, sacking Testaverde near his own goal line, forcing a fumble that was fallen on by a jubilant Joyner in the end zone. After the extra point, the score was 13-0, and Kotite's conservative strategy seemed to be working.