Back In Super Style After an embarrassing defeat, the Buccaneers quickly got their championship act together

October 19, 2003

Warren Sapp Cadillacked off the field in second gear while
pointing to the number 99 on his jersey, in case any lingering
Washington Redskins fans had failed to notice him. It was a
relatively humble exit after a surreal week for the marquee
defensive tackle and the rest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For
seven days they often appeared as if they had fallen through a
looking glass, but as they slipped back through the north tunnel
at FedEx Field and into their spartan locker room on Sunday, the
mad tea party was over and they were themselves again--the most
resourceful team in the NFL.

Sapp (two sacks) and defensive end Simeon Rice (a
franchise-record four) had a nose for the football, and
quarterback Brad Johnson, who completed 15 of his last 17 passes
to rally Tampa Bay from a 13-7 third-quarter deficit, had a nose
like a football--scraped and reddish and bulging at the bridge
after a hit from Washington Redskins defensive end Bruce Smith.
There were two touchdown passes to the third-string tight end,
Todd Yoder, and another to the fourth-stringer, Will Heller. If
the Bucs had gone any lower on their depth chart, they would have
been 40,000 leagues under the NFL. "Truthfully," Johnson said, "I
don't know who's playing half the time." The jerry-built
secondary combined with the rampaging Rice to limit Washington to
one first down on five second-half possessions, while Tampa Bay
was scoring touchdowns on three consecutive drives of 80, 91 and
70 yards.

The big news: The Super Bowl champions scored 35 points...and

Easy now. The scars are still a little too fresh on a defense
that can argue its case for being one of the best of its
generation. When All-Pro linebacker Derrick Brooks returned an
interception 44 yards to give the Bucs a 35-13 lead with 6:55
remaining, the score and time were eerily similar to the
situation six days before, when the seemingly impregnable Bucs
had drifted down the hole into blunderland by squandering a 35-14
lead to the Indianapolis Colts and suffering a historic defeat at
home--before a Monday-night national TV audience, no less.

"It was pointed out, yes--86 times," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden
said after Sunday's game. "I've never been more uncomfortable
with a 22-point lead in my life." Of course, this time the
Redskins were the opponent, not the Peyton Manning-led Colts, and
there would be no deja blue. "Last week was not us," Bucs
cornerback Ronde Barber said. "This defense has put up some great
stretch runs for six, seven years, and one five-minute deal at
the end of one game is not going to characterize us."

All week the Bucs had vowed to put the Indianapolis defeat behind
them, which was where Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison had
repeatedly been when the madness started in the Monday-night
game. Harrison gamboled through the Tampa Bay secondary, mostly
behind fill-in cornerback Tim Wansley, for seven catches, 157
yards and two touchdowns after halftime, as the Colts rebounded
from the 21-point deficit with four minutes left to win 38-35 in
overtime. Maybe the unfettered Harrison's performance would have
been less irksome to the Bucs if their wideout Keyshawn Johnson,
miked by ABC during the game, had not been so publicly dismissive
of Harrison, or if Keyshawn, who left with a bruised right
quadriceps, had finished the game. Maybe not. In any case, the
Bucs collapsed like a consumptive soprano in the final act.
Undermined by penalties and egregious special teams play, a
defense that had allowed only one touchdown on 65 previous
possessions--and that on a drive of two yards--gave up five
touchdowns in seven series. "You will not see something like that
ever again," strong safety John Lynch said last week. "It was
humiliating, embarrassing, not even close to being up to our
standards, but we will continue to have a swagger."

Indeed, by Wednesday, weird circumstances forced the Bucs to look
away from the debacle against Indy and look ahead to the game in
Washington. In a morning press conference that verged on the
lachrymose, fullback Mike Alstott, one of the NFL's toughest
players, announced that the herniated disk in his neck would
require season-ending surgery. This was drama. The comedy, of
sorts, was provided later in the day by Redskins linebacker LaVar
Arrington and his unwitting foil. Arrington, the Man Who Would Be
Sapp, told reporters in Washington that he found Sapp's penchant
for skipping through the opposition's lines during pregame
stretching to be disrespectful. Nor was Arrington enamored of
Sapp's lining up as a tight end in goal line situations. Turning
to the cameras, Arrington said, "Sapp, I'm going to get you." In
a rejoinder later that evening, the garrulous 6'2", 303-pound
Sapp, who'd had one more touchdown reception--and one more
self-aggrandizing, bunny-hopping celebratory dance--than sacks in
his last 12 regular-season games before getting the pair against
Washington, said he would be easy enough to find.

The NFL put an end to the men-will-be-boys banter last Thursday
with letters to both teams, reminding them that players who
disrupt warmups would be subject to penalties and perhaps
ejection. Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay met with Sapp to
reinforce the message, and Sapp behaved, skirting the huddled
Redskins 35 minutes before kickoff. (A laughing Sapp and
Arrington also embraced after the game.) "When you have Warren
Sapp and a player on another team involved in what I refer to as
idle chatter, it might be national news and a lot of levity for
some people," Gruden said as he stood on the patio amid the
weight machines at One Buc Place last Friday. "But I don't
consider that a tenth of a percentage point of distraction."

Gruden had more substantive issues to ponder, including Wansley,
a second-year player who was thrust into the lineup after Brian
Kelly was injured on Tampa Bay's first defensive series against
the Colts. Clearly Wansley was not ready for prime time.
Apparently he wasn't at his absolute best at other hours, either.
According to Tampa-area newspapers, Wansley had been tardy for
two meetings in the previous two weeks. (The sly St. Petersburg
declined comment on the reports, but against the Redskins he did
shift Barber to the unfamiliar left corner, move Dwight Smith
from free safety to right corner and put second-year man Jermaine
Phillips in Smith's spot.

"We've lost [two games] because we can't kick an extra point and
we can't hold on to a 21-point lead with less than five minutes
left," Gruden said. "The problem with this team isn't discipline,
it's the closer."

The obvious thread that connects those overtime defeats at home,
to the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 and Indianapolis, is special
teams. The Panthers blocked two field goal attempts, blocked an
extra point on the final play of regulation and returned a punt
52 yards to set up their winning field goal in overtime. In those
final four minutes of the fourth quarter against the Colts, Tampa
Bay gave up a 90-yard kickoff return and failed to recover an
onside kick. Judging by the generally acceptable special teams
play against the Redskins--one kickoff out-of-bounds by Martin
Gramatica, one 20-yard punt by Tom Tupa--special teams are more
easily remedied than another flaw that still bedevils the Bucs:

Those yellow flags are a red-flag item, the only truly
disquieting thing about this championship team. The penalties
speak to the profound issues of sloppiness and inattention to
detail. Tampa Bay leads the NFL with an average of 105 penalty
yards per game, an obscene number for a team that prides itself
on poise and preparation. (By comparison, last season the Bucs
had 49.3 penalty yards per game.) Gruden calls the infractions "a
sore thumb." Certainly they stick out. Right tackle Kenyatta
Walker's unnecessary-roughness foul before the two-minute warning
and Sapp's subsequent roughing-the-passer penalty spectacularly
undermined the Bucs against Indianapolis. In Washington a
helmet-to-helmet hit on quarterback Patrick Ramsey by defensive
end Greg Spires resuscitated the Redskins' only touchdown drive,
and an offside penalty by Dwight Smith on a punt early in the
third quarter moved the Redskins close enough to allow John Hall
to kick a 51-yard field goal. "We gave them 10 points," defensive
coordinator Monte Kiffin said.

Tampa Bay, which hasn't lost consecutive games since Gruden took
over before the start of the 2002 season, could--probably
should--be undefeated instead of 3-2 and two games behind the
Panthers in the NFC South. As Rice noted, "We're right where we
need to be. We're not where we want to be." Tea time is over. For
the champions, the real party has just started.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS ALL BUSINESS Sapp steered clear of the Redskins in pregame drills on Sunday, then picked up his first two sacks of the season. COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY BALL CONTROL Michael Pittman had 62 rushing yards for an offense that had four touchdown drives of at least 70 yards. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS BATTLE SCARS Brad Johnson took a shot to the nose, but he still threw four touchdown passes against his old team. COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY RECEIVING END Keyshawn Johnson was upstaged in the Monday-nighter, but he had a 39-yard TD reception on Sunday.

"I've never been more uncomfortable with a 22-point lead in my
life," Gruden said of the Bucs' big edge over the Redskins.

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