© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2003
Someone is going to be Doug Williams.
Someone is going to be Joe Namath.
Someone, like it or not, is going to be Brad Culpepper.
Talk about your playoff memories, if you wish. Talk about men and moments, about legend and lore, about promises and payoffs. These are the times of dreams, when the riches and rewards are so close they seem inevitable.
But as the Bucs approach another playoff season, their fifth in six seasons, perhaps they need to remember the moments no one bothers to imagine.
It was an hour after the defeat, as memory serves, but the bitterness had not worn off from Culpepper's face. The sweat and grime of the game were there, but what you noticed were the angry eyes. When he spoke, his words were hard and clipped. He cut the tape from his wrists and threw it to the floor.
Around him, there were various levels of disappointment. No one likes to lose. But there were some who saw this as merely a stumble along the road, as a beginning. There were others who found comfort in how well the team had played before falling just short.
Somehow, on that day in 1999, Culpepper seemed to know better. He knew just how far his team had come, how many things had gone just so, and how rare an opportunity had escaped. Perhaps, somewhere deep inside, Culpepper also knew it was his last chance.
No one thinks about moments such as this. No one considers the sting that comes with the stumble.
As the Bucs prepare to enter another playoff, perhaps his old teammates should remember the way it ended for Culpepper. Such is the price of defeat. And it costs some players everything.
There are better ways to think of the playoffs, of course. The NFL prefers you talk of triumph, of uncommon moments and unmeasured success. The networks want you to believe every play will be a highlight, every drive will produce a touchdown and every game will end in celebration.
The playoffs do this. They turn teams into dreamers, adventurers, conquerers. Someone is going to be a legend. Someone is going to create lore. The playoffs are a fresh start, a new canvas.
Someone is going to be Joe Montana.
Someone is going to be Ray Lewis.
Someone, sad as it may be, is going to be Hardy Nickerson.
You remember Nickerson. Like Culpepper, he played in that NFC title game. It was the last time he suited up for the Bucs.
At a time like this, perhaps the Bucs should recognize that some players don't make the journey home. The playoffs are a rare opportunity. For some, they are a last chance. In a league of constant change, they should not take next year for granted.
A few years ago, it felt different. In '97, the Bucs entered the playoffs wide-eyed and innocent, and even a loss felt more like a delay than a defeat. In '99, they reached the NFC title game, and they still seemed to have a claim on the future.
Things are different now. The Bucs are an older team, a team scarred by back-to-back early exits. A young team fools itself into believing opportunities are going to last forever. A veteran team knows better. It knows not everyone makes the trip back.
Already, the Bucs defense has defied the odds. It has been good now for eight seasons. Chronologically, the mainstays of the defense are still in good shape. John Lynch is 31, Warren Sapp is 30, Derrick Brooks is 29. Simeon Rice is 28. Ronde Barber is 27 and Booger McFarland 25. There figures to be a little more defense to be played.
Ah, but if you go back to '99, Culpepper wasn't that old either. Nor was Nickerson. Neither of them played again for the Bucs. Nor did Tony Mayberry, or Paul Gruber, or Trent Dilfer, or Bert Emanuel. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was fired.
It happens that way. Sometimes it's the price of success -- raises for everyone! -- that causes the changes. Sometimes it's the price of defeat. Sometimes it's age and sometimes it's injury and sometimes it's salary and sometimes it's either a team or a player trying to better themselves. But nothing stays the same.
Remember 2000, the year the Bucs would have had a first-round bye if a makeable field goal hadn't gone wide against Green Bay? The Bucs promptly lost a first-round game to the Eagles, and the heads started to roll anew.
Les Steckel, the offensive coordinator, was canned. Shaun King was replaced at quarterback. Chidi Ahanotu was allowed to walk. Damien Robinson was replaced at safety. The pressure began to mount on those who remained.
Then came last year, and another one-and-done, and the sharp blades came out.
Tony Dungy, the most popular coach in team history, was fired along with his entire offensive staff. Warrick Dunn wanted too much money. Receivers Jacquez Green and Reidel Anthony were replaced. Linebacker Jamie Duncan, cornerback Donnie Abraham, tackle Jerry Wunsch, guard Randall McDaniel and tight end Dave Moore played their last games as Bucs.
By now, it should be obvious. The playoffs aren't just for fun. Losing is a disaster. If you are a member of the Bucs, you are foolish to treat it any other way.
Here we are again, and there is a tendency to feel as if it is something new. It was the first season under Jon Gruden, after all, and his offense has just begun to fire. Surely, the Bucs are going to be good for a while, aren't they?
If you are a Bucs player, perhaps it is not healthy to think that way. Perhaps it is better to think of the playoffs as something to be seized. Two victories and the Bucs are in the Super Bowl. In a league of injury and instability, who knows if any of them will be this close again?
In all the excitement at hand, in all the dreams of all the moments to come, perhaps that's worth a moment in the mirror. Perhaps the Bucs players should wonder if they could be Culpepper, if they could be Nickerson.
Someone is going to be Tom Brady.
Someone is going to be Lynn Swann.
Someone, sadly, is going to be Tony Dungy.
As the playoffs begin for the Bucs, that's worth remembering. As a team, they have reached the point where tomorrow isn't promised to them.
If they want it, it seems like a good time to take it.