© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003
TAMPA -- A little late, Kenyatta Walker now knows what he wanted for Christmas.
Respect. Credit. Or maybe just a break.
The Buccaneers right tackle said the oft-maligned offensive line deserves some positive reinforcement after Sunday's performance in a 31-6 NFC semifinal win in front of 65,599 at Raymond James Stadium.
The Bucs offense rolled up a team postseason-record 329 yards and 31 points. Tampa Bay broke the playoff record of 24, set in 1979 against Philadelphia, in the first half.
Give quarterback Brad Johnson credit for completing 15-of-31 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns. Give fullback Mike Alstott credit for 60 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Give the offense credit for converting 59 percent (10-of-17) of its third downs.
But give some credit to this offensive line, too, Walker said.
"I just want something good said about this offensive line," Walker said. "I don't even want to hear about how we're getting better. I want to hear that we played a good game and that we looked good.
"I don't want to hear that the O-line is weak, that Brad got hurt, that there's bad protection. 'Good job.' That's what I need to hear, instead of turning on the TV and seeing everybody criticize this offensive line. That's getting tiresome. That offends me. I just need something good this week, a 'thank you,' something. That would be my Christmas present. That's all I need."
Perfection still eludes the Bucs between the tackles. Johnson was sacked once and felt pressure from the blitz. The quarterback had to leave briefly to have a gash above his right eye treated after he was injured on a short run. Tampa Bay also averaged 3.2 yards on the ground.
But when the linemen saw the 49ers defense on tape, they saw a unit they knew they could exploit -- and a chance to answer a season's worth of criticism.
"We watched the film and we saw that it was an undersized defense of athletes, fast guys who played to our advantage," Walker said. "We're supposed to be the guys that get beat around the corner, the guys that really don't want to (play hard), but instead it really played into our hands.
"I think we came out running the ball real well. The power (runs) with Mike and the goal-line plays and that just opened up a lot of other things for us. It's a complete game for us."
Alstott said the line did an excellent job of neutralizing San Francisco tackles Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield and ends Andre Carter and Chike Okeafor.
"They had two hogs up front and two speed guys on the end, but our guys did some good things as far as pass protection," Alstott said, "getting on some blocks and sustaining those blocks."
Left tackle Roman Oben said the line's mental and physical preparation during the bye week paved the way for Sunday's performance.
"We've got it in our minds that we're not the same team," Oben said. "We had good focus and preparation last week, and we paid more attention to detail than we have. Everybody worked hard last week, we did the little things that coach (Jon) Gruden said we needed to do to be successful.
"We were playing for the chance of a lifetime."
Cornerback Ronde Barber had his twin brother, Giants running back Tiki Barber, on the sideline, watching as the Bucs avenged the 49ers' elimination of New York.
It's only the second time Tiki has watched his brother play in person in their six seasons in the NFL. He attended a Monday night game against St. Louis two seasons ago.
Even after watching the 49ers rally from 24 points down Jan. 5, Tiki had confidence that the Bucs' 28-6 halftime lead would hold up.
"I told Ronde that I thought they could have their way with the 49ers defense, and unlike what happened last week, I knew they were going to get pressure on Jeff Garcia," he said. "They're different. You can tell. Their pass rushers, they don't let anyone out of the pocket. I knew they could handle it."
Will Tiki attend Sunday's NFC Championship Game at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia?
"I'm not sure," he said. "I'm a hated man in Philly."
Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer made a rare, brief statement after addressing the team.
"It's a great day for Tampa," he said. "We're so excited."
And his message for Philadelphia? "We're waiting for them."
Eric "Beer Stud" Walker, 37, and Danny "Big Bop" Bethel, 39, love their tailgate spot in the Sears parking lot across from RJS, so much so they arrived at 4 p.m. Saturday in the school bus they bought and decorated with Bucs motif.
"We love our spot. We wouldn't want to lose it, so we came early," said Walker, who lives in St. Augustine. "Or at least that's what we tell our wives."
So how many supplies were needed to tide over the former college roommates until the real tailgate bloomed Sunday morning? Ten slabs of ribs, four chickens, 18 bratwursts, 12 bags of chips, a case of beer, two bottles of liquor, Mexican dip and a 10-gallon can of gas to fuel the generator that powers the bus sound system, satellite dish and inflatable Bucs action figures.
Any good autograph hound knows how to collect valuable signatures: get up early before a game, hang out at the player and media entrances and bring along a friend.
That's what San Antonio's Jamie Miller did to get Fox Sports analyst Troy Aikman's autograph on a full-size Hall of Fame helmet and a 16- by 20-inch poster photo.
When Aikman, analyst Cris Collinsworth and sideline reporter Pam Oliver arrived at RJS about 10:15 a.m., Miller and other autograph hunters were ready. Miller, 31, and friend John McDougall, 34, were wearing Cowboys T-shirts, and Aikman obliged their requests to sign multiple items.
"This is the third time Aikman has been here and I've gotten him all three times," Miller said. "He's a groovy guy."
The memorabilia has a place in Miller's Pasco County home, where he keeps his Cowboys room filled with autographed paraphernalia: 100 mini-helmets, 25 full-size helmets, 20 footballs, 100 pictures and 15 jerseys.
After he got Aikman's signature, Miller had to make a quick dash back to his car.
"I've actually got season tickets for the Bucs," he said. "I'm going to go back and change into my Bucs stuff and come back and watch the game. I'm a Cowboys fan, but I support the Bucs."
Linda Lynch, wife of strong safety John Lynch, was on the sideline for the closing minutes of the game with the couple's son Jake in her arms.
But when the game ended, security would not let her take the youngest Lynch onto the field. Not until John intervened, that is. The Pro Bowl safety went from interview to interview with Jake in his arms.
The only weakness the Bucs displayed was uncharacteristic: the kicking game.
All six of Martin Gramatica's kickoffs were returned an average of 27 yards. He made a 19-yard field goal in the third quarter, but missed a 45-yarder, shanking it right early in the fourth.
Brandon Coppolino and stepbrother Chris Fackelman had never seen their favorite team in person, and their Terrell Owens and Garrison Hearst 49ers jerseys were not coming off, despite the heckling they were sure to take.
"We're really excited about this," Coppolino, 17, said. "We're going to get a boatload of (grief), but their boat sinks today."
Coppolino and Fackelman, 11, attended the game with their parents, Debbie (an Eagles fan) and Howie Fackelman (Giants fan), who live in Orlando.
Howie Fackelman got 300-level tickets from a business associate.
But why can't a couple of Florida kids just root for the next best thing to a home team?
"The Bucs haven't been good very long," Coppolino said. "I've been with the Niners since way back when they had (Joe) Montana."
Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius caught three passes for 48 yards and a touchdown. But he was injured in the third, when he dislocated his left pinkie. He returned to the game and was taken for X-rays afterward. He is expected to play this weekend.
Defensive tackle Warren Sapp has enjoyed many memorable moments in eight seasons as a Buc.
Sunday, though, might top them all.
"If it's no fun, I'm not playing," he said. "It's a blast out there, man. Did you see that crowd? I had to stop in the tunnel. Did you can see all the red and white? Did they sell a San Fran ticket today?
"It was special today, it was really special. I played here for eight years, and that was a special trip when I came out of the tunnel."
The Hazel clan traveled 1,889 miles from Pueblo, Colo., with 14 people jammed inside a 1993 Dodge Caravan after they ripped out the seats to make more room. They had two adults, 12 children and no tickets.
Three hours before kickoff, waiting outside the visiting player entrance, the brood was in high spirits.
"This is as good as it gets," said Becky Hazel, wearing a "Florida: Life Is a Beach" T-shirt. "It's beautiful, it's warm. Hey, no guts no glory, right?"
They watched the game from a video board outside the stadium, not worrying about the long trip back. Becky Hazel's husband, Kent, a carpenter, said he has been transferred to Florida.
Fans had flags waiting for them in the cup holder of each seat. The "Battle Flags" came in two team colors and two team logos: the red flag had the skull-and-swords logo, and the white flag featured the black pirate ship.
The result was a visual effect never before seen at RJS, as more than 65,000 flags furiously waved at kickoff. It was a hit with the players, too.
"It was fun out there today to see our fans into it," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "We need to keep the flag thing going, that looks kind of cool to see the flags waving and the fans behind us. It was tremendous honor for them to finish off the season that way in the last game at Raymond (James) Stadium."
Said running back Michael Pittman: "To run out there and see all the flags waving and they're all cheering, we all appreciate that. They're a big part of this team. We respect the crowd."
Long-snapper Ryan Benjamin had a good week. His wife, Theresa, gave birth to a boy, Aidan Cooper, their first, at 11:38 Friday night.
Benjamin, a River Ridge High School product and former South Florida player, was back with the team Saturday night, and his lone mistake Sunday turned out to be his blessing. His holding penalty forced the Bucs to rekick in the second, and Tom Tupa's second effort went 51 yards, downed on the San Francisco 2.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out what happened to the 49ers. But it just so happens that San Francisco has a football genius: former coach and current team consultant Bill Walsh.
"I thought we would do better," Walsh said. "The breaks went against us. The turnovers killed us. It was just a game we lost to a really good team.
"Everything went in (the Bucs') favor today. They get all the breaks in the game, and that makes a really big difference."
San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci made an easy transition from playoff coach to NFC Championship Game commentator after the loss. His take on the Bucs at Eagles game?
"They both have great defenses, and they're both relatively fresh after having byes," he said. "It should be a great game. Don't ask me to predict a winner."
-- JAMAL THALJI, BRANT JAMES, KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER and GREG AUMAN