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Everything goes just right for Bucs

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2002


TAMPA -- On a perfect day, the sky seems a little bluer. The air is a little cooler, and the water in the bay is a little clearer.

TAMPA -- On a perfect day, the sky seems a little bluer. The air is a little cooler, and the water in the bay is a little clearer.

On a perfect day, food tastes a little better. Jokes are a little funnier, and the radio plays only turn-up-the-volume songs.

On a perfect day, also known as Sunday, the temptation is to throw the note pad away, walk into the locker room of the Tampa Bay Bucs and start asking for lottery numbers.

This day belonged to the Bucs. From dusk to dawn, from first light to last call, the world revolved around Jon Gruden's locker room. Heaven smiled, sirens sang and angels blew kisses. Everything imaginable turned out right.

The Bucs won.

The Saints lost.

The Packers lost.

The 49ers lost.

The Eagles lost Donovan McNabb.

Talk about a perfecta. The last time anyone had a day such as this one, the New York Racing Commission got involved.

Have you ever had a day such as this? Where you found money in the parking lot, where your work decided you had earned a day off, where the new car salesman was in his last day on the job and wanted to stick it to the boss? This was one of those kinds of days.

It was as if the NFC was the Red Sea and Gruden was Moses. The waters parted, everyone got out of the way, and instead of chasing the pack, as the Bucs have all season, they were leading. "Other teams did what they were supposed to do for us," said Ronde Barber who, frankly, wants to thank all those who made it possible. "Now we have to do our part."

How, possibly, could this day have turned out better for the Bucs? Maybe if Steven Spielberg offered a movie role to Warren Sapp, if the Glazers unveiled a new practice facility they had worked on in secret and if, just to be neighborly, Al Davis called to offer a rebate on all those draft picks. Also, it would have been nice if Brett Favre and Aaron Brooks had decided to retire to enter the lucrative field of collect call pitchmen.

"I could have had a couple of sacks," Sapp said. "That would have made it better."

"It could have been about 5 degrees cooler," Barber said. "And (Carolina receiver Steve Smith) wouldn't have touched that ball (and negated a touchdown that Barber would have scored with a fumble return)."

Still, as days go, this one was tough to beat.

Turns out, as teams go, so are the Bucs.

For the first time this season, it is possible to see the Bucs as a legitimate contender in the NFC. Yeah, yeah. You can grumble if you want, about the running game, about the line, about the schedule.

On the other hand, 8-2.

Say what you want. As Gruden offered after the game, 8-2 doesn't demand any apology, especially not if fate is going to lease a skybox. The Bucs are now on top of the NFC South, and if they beat the Packers at home Sunday, they'll have the best record in the NFL. They don't just hold their destiny, they have it by the throat.

In the NFL, teams play the regular season with two goals in mind. Get an opening-round bye in the playoffs and get as many postseason games at home as possible. Given the way the Bucs defense is playing, given the improvement of the offense its past two games, it's possible to see that happening.

"I believe in this team," safety John Lynch said. "I know there are still people who will talk about this part of our team or that part, but shoot, we're 8-2. I've never been 8-2 before.

"I like the focus on this team. In the past, if you could say anything about us, it's that we were up and down. This year, we've had a more consistent effort."

With their defensive strengths and offensive weaknesses, it has been easy for critics toshrug at the Bucs and suggest there was nothing new. There is. The offense, despite its struggles, has a more aggressive approach. Also, there is a new standard of toughness.

On a perfect day, lame men walk. Ask Sapp, whose perfect day began in perfect agony, when he woke up with a bad back. The back has bothered Sapp all week, but it hurt most of all on Sunday. He began treatment on it six hours before the game.

At one point, there was doubt whether Sapp would be able to play. Gruden looked at him and said, "You've got my watch and my wallet in your hands," Sapp said.

Sapp played. Of course he did. Kerry Jenkins played with a broken leg earlier in the season and a broken orbital bone Sunday. Brad Johnson had a cracked rib two weeks ago. Jeff Christy had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee two weeks ago. Give this to the Bucs. The opening bell rings, and the Bucs limp out to play.

In other words, you can talk about fortune, or you can talk about fortitude. Turns out, the Bucs have a measure of each.

No, it isn't a perfect team and, no, it didn't play a perfect game. But there are problems all over. Do you think they're grumbling in New Orleans about a defense that caught up with them? In Green Bay about losing to a bad Minnesota team? In San Francisco? How do you think they feel in Philadelphia about the devastating loss of McNabb, the heart of the Eagles?

For the Bucs, it was the perfect way to spend a Sunday. The grass was green. The sun was gentle. There was a breeze.

On a perfect day, you couldn't see forever. But the Bucs allowed you to think about it.

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