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The clock is ticking

The Bucs' core of veterans has been through many wars but has never made it to a Super Bowl. For Sapp, Lynch and Brooks, especially, time is running short.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 19, 2003

PHILADELPHIA -- It's unusual in an era of free agency, when players switch teams like J-Lo changes fiances, not to find several in each locker room that have won a Super Bowl.

But there is no lord of the rings taking residence at One Buc Place.

Receiver Keenan McCardell, 33, was a rookie on injured reserve for Washington when the Redskins beat Denver in Super Bowl XXII.

"That doesn't count," said quarterback Brad Johnson, 34. "No one on this team really knows how it feels because they've never won it."

Three years ago, when the Bucs walked off the field in St. Louis after losing the NFC Championship Game to the Rams 11-6, they figured they would make repeated appearances in the conference title game.

But since then, Tampa Bay has failed to make the playoffs once and lost in the wild-card round at Philadelphia the past two seasons.

Only 13 players remain on the active 53-man roster who were with the team at that conference title game.

So when the Bucs play the Eagles in today's NFC Championship Game at Veterans Stadium, they may feel the window of opportunity for reaching a Super Bowl in their career has narrowed to a peep hole.

"When you have veteran players like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Lomas Brown, guys walking around, Brad Johnson, you have enough veteran players who understand. We don't have one coach or player on our team that has ever won a Super Bowl," Gruden said. "I think it's pretty easy for any rookie or second-year player to understand how elusive, how hard it is to get there. We're going to try our best to make sure everybody realizes just how great of an accomplishment it is to be in a championship game and what a great responsibility it is to play at your very best.

"We have a lot of guys who have been on the cusp of getting there. They've been to that final round and lost that 11-6 game and came within four minutes. They know how much they've accomplished to reach this level. That's apparent in a lot of these guys."

But the clock ticks the loudest for Sapp, 30, Brooks, 29, and Lynch, 31.

Since Tony Dungy arrived in 1996, they have been the core of a Bucs defense that has been among the league's best. This season, they were ranked first overall and led the NFL in fewest points allowed (196) and most interceptions (31).

But the Bucs defense will never take its place among the '85 Chicago Bears or 2000 Baltimore Ravens unless they win a Super Bowl.

"We were so close, I think it just makes you more hungry," Lynch said. "It makes you understand just how close you were. We kind of went into that game naive, just kind of saying, 'Here we are.' And the next thing you know, wow, we were four minutes away. I think everybody understands exactly the opportunity we have. The older guys have been able to communicate that to the young guys. It's a special opportunity."

How special? This is only the third time in 27 seasons the Bucs have played for the conference championship. They lost to the Los Angeles Rams 9-0 in '79 and watched their slim lead disappear with four minutes to go in the NFC title game in '99.

"I remember the outcome of that game," said receiver Karl Williams, 31. "The one thing that really stands in my mind is watching the clock tick down knowing that the season is over with and being so close to going to the Super Bowl and everyone throughout the team saying it's our time and our year to get there. When you fall short, everything feels so disappointing. The long walk back to the bus, how quiet it was on the bus and the long flight back home. There's a lot of guys who played in this league and never had a chance to play in this game or go to the Super Bowl. It's a small window of opportunity and when you're in this position, you do everything you can to get there because you never know when you're going to get there again."

Johnson and center Jeff Christy, who are in their 11th and 10th seasons, respectively, played on the 1998 Vikings team that went 15-1, their lone regular-season loss coming at Tampa Bay.

But despite having home field advantage, they lost to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.

"You don't want to ever forget that feeling," said Christy, who turns 34 next month. "That's something you definitely don't ever want to feel again."

Brad Johnson was disappointed by the experience because injuries knocked him out of the game.

"I'm looking to play another four or five years, so hopefully I've got a bunch of opportunities," he said. "I missed in '97. I got us to 8-2 and then I got hurt. Next thing you know it's Randall (Cunningham)'s team because we won a playoff game and he started the next year. I missed a year and a half of good football. That's what I'm trying to overcome. The other stuff kind of takes care of itself."

Receiver Keyshawn Johnson, guard Kerry Jenkins and offensive line coach Bill Muir were with the Jets when they lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Denver in the '98 AFC Championship Game.

"So close, yet so far," said Keyshawn Johnson, 30. "We've got more people that the public hates on this team than we did with the Jets. We've got people in the public that don't like me, they don't like Warren Sapp. We didn't have that. So there's more people not wanting us to achieve our goals. They'd love to see Warren Sapp and I fail in getting us a Super Bowl ring. They're going to try and disrupt that as much as they can."

Bucs tackle Lomas Brown, 39, was disrupted for 16 seasons before his New York Giants team reached Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, where it lost to the Ravens.

'I don't know if there's words to describe it," Brown said. "But when you get an opportunity like this, you have to take advantage of it."

Even Gruden, the NFL's youngest coach at 39, has had his close call, losing in the AFC Championship Game two years ago to the Ravens in Oakland.

"I'll tell you, all the work you do, you look at Bill Muir, 25 years, he's been in one of these games," Gruden said. "You look at some of these guys, Richard Mann, Monte Kiffin ... you're just so proud, man. Just the thought. You just can't help yourself. You just think, man! I've got to get in that God dang game. You know? And it wears you out a little bit. But at the same time, you respect the game enough to get right back to 60 minutes and try to stay shallow.

"We're 13-4, coming off a rousing victory against a darn good football team. Our guys are confident and I'm trying to make sure they stay that way."

And maybe the window won't slam shut.

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