But Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Eagles gives players a chance to show the world who's the NFL's best.
By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 17, 2003
TAMPA -- The Bucs and Eagles are among the best secondaries in the league, and while they share a deep desire to advance to the Super Bowl, one motivating difference is what they'll be doing a week later.
Three Eagles defensive backs -- safety Brian Dawkins and cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor -- will be representing the NFC at the Pro Bowl, while only safety John Lynch will represent the Bucs.
So if the rest of Tampa's secondary is feeling, well, secondary this week, they can get their revenge Sunday. Let the Eagles go to Hawaii, they say, and the Bucs will send them a postcard to tell them how nice it was in San Diego.
"That's the great thing about this game," said Lynch, a five-time Pro Bowl selection. "Our guys get an opportunity to stand up and say, "We belong.' There's a lot of respect both ways, but the Pro Bowl is something that's very arbitrary and not an exact science."
Except for trips to Hawaii, the Bucs have nearly every statistical edge. They allowed the fewest passing yards and touchdowns in the league, and led the league with 31 interceptions, more than twice Philadelphia's total (15). What the Eagles have is a reputation, one the Bucs have a chance to chip into a bit.
"You've got to say they're the best," said cornerback Dwight Smith, who has four interceptions this season. "They've got three guys going to the Pro Bowl out of their starting four, so they have to be labeled the best. But we're not too shabby either. We have guys who have been to the Pro Bowl and are playing at the Pro Bowl level. Right now, I don't think there's a better secondary in the NFL than the way we're playing." Brian Kelly led the NFL with eight interceptions in a breakout season, but his lack of exposure might have led to his Pro Bowl snub. Ronde Barber's detractors will point to his two interceptions, but Dawkins and Vincent will go to Hawaii with two picks each.
"It surprised me," Smith said. "I'd expect Brian Kelly would go. Ronde Barber didn't get a lot of passes because quarterbacks don't look that way. We were real disappointed that more of our guys didn't go. I think we'd rather be going to the Super Bowl."
Both secondaries are a major reason for their teams' success. Lynch and Taylor have been with their team longer than any other player, but both groups are tenured. The Bucs starting four combines for 25 years in the league and 57 interceptions; the Eagles boast 36 years and 82 interceptions.
"A secondary is very much like an offensive line. It's not about great individual players, but about guys playing collectively great," Bucs defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said. "In order to do that, guys have to have a sense of where the help is. Continuity is big, and the fact that we've had guys playing together for a while is a big reason for our success."
Defensive coordinators Monte Kiffin and Jim Johnson have their defensive backs doing more than just dropping back into coverage. The Eagles frequently blitz their safeties -- Dawkins has three sacks and free safety Blaine Bishop two -- and the Bucs like to attack opposing quarterbacks with their secondary. Barber has three sacks this season, and two years ago he finished with 51/2.
Both units are leading the way for the top defenses in the league, so while it can be debated which is stronger going into the game, a win Sunday puts one unit closer to something that really matters. The teams' defensive backs combine for 18 trips to the Pro Bowl, but not one Super Bowl ring.
"I don't worry too much about who's going where or who's getting what," Tomlin said. "I don't think it'll be the motivating reason why we play to win on Sunday. All I care about is that I get Pro Bowl caliber efforts from my guys."
And if the Bucs secondary can outplay Philadelphia's and lead to a victory, the Pro Bowl can go back to being an afterthought.
"We're going to play our game," Smith said. "We're the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the league. You have to play to our level. We don't have to play to yours."