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Bucs can take it or leave it

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 19, 2003

PHILADELPHIA -- Once, John Elway stood on the same ledge. Once, he faced the same doubters.

Why bother, John?

Why suffer?

He had failed, after all. And failed again. And again. So why should anyone believe the same journey would have different results? Three times, he had taken the same ride, and he suffered the same fall. In the name of mercy, supposedly, the questions came.

Why try, John?

Why risk it?

Time was, this was the popular thinking in Denver. Elway had lost all three of his Super Bowls -- the Broncos had lost four -- and it became a popular line of thinking that perhaps the team was better off if it stumbled a little earlier in the playoffs. Elway kept saying that, if it took it to win one, he'd suffer 10 Super Bowl losses. Others asked: Please, John, don't reach the Super Bowl. Please, save the city from further embarrassment.

It is on such ground, between failure and forgiveness, between repetition and reward, between the same old pain and a brand new day, that the Tampa Bay Bucs find themselves today. Once again, they will walk across a cold Veterans Stadium field to face the elements, the insults and the opposition. Once again, they will try to contain Donovan McNabb, corral Duce Staley and contradict recent history.

Such is the size of the final, familiar demon in their path. Already, the Bucs have shown they could win in the cold, and they have shown they can win on the road, and they have shown they could win in a new coach's first season. Ah, but can they win in the cold and on the road and in the coach's first season? Can they beat the team that, to them, has been unbeatable?

We'll see.

What is it about an athlete that drives him across the same broken glass and through the same dark alleys that caused him so much heartache? What makes an athlete charge ahead, convinced that this time will be different than last time and the time before? What makes a mountain climber try again after he has been chased away, a fighter rise when he has been battered, a warrior continue when the previous battles were all bloody?

In sports, this is a common refrain. Often, one team finds itself vexed by another. In the '60s, the Cowboys could not get past the Packers and, in the '80s, the Packers could not get past the Cowboys. The Browns never did solve a way to get past the Broncos.

For the Bucs, the Eagles are the face of the devil and the Vet is the playground in Hades. This team and this place have been the stuff of nightmares. The Eagles have ended their last two seasons. The offense has been awful. The defense has surrendered big plays. The feeling has been miserable.

So why bother?

Why come back?

"If you're an athlete, you always risk it," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "You want the challenge. It doesn't matter what's happened before.

"Can you imagine how it would feel to win this game? On this field? Can you imagine it? As good as it would feel to win it at home, in some ways, this would be better."

And that's why the athletes keep showing up.

It doesn't matter whether you believe this game will be different. They believe it. There is a different air, a different energy, around the Bucs this time. They are not the mentally shredded team of the last two postseasons, a disappointment wandering around waiting for someone to mercifully turn off the lights.

"You can't think of a better route than through an opponent where none of you think we can get it done," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "You all think we're going to get beat. There's nothing wrong with that, because none of you matter. It's the 53 on their side and the 53 on our side that's going to matter."

All week, it has been that way. There has been a resolve among the Bucs that is different than it has been. If you want a similar air, go back to just before the NFC title game of '99. That week, too, the Bucs seemed weary of hearing how badly the Rams were going to beat them.

This week, too, the Bucs have had history books tossed at their skulls. People talked about the cold until Jon Gruden pointed out that, technically, Philadelphia still is in America. They talked about the Eagles' success until Gruden wondered if his team was behind 24-0 getting off the plane.

It sounds different. It feels different. Today, the Bucs get a chance to prove that it is different.

Some teams have managed. Once, the Chicago Bulls couldn't get past the Pistons. Once, the Brooklyn Dodgers couldn't get past the Yankees. Once, Orville Wright crashed his plane and John F. Kennedy sank his boat. And, yes, Elway and the Broncos won two Super Bowls before they were finished.

Of course, not every team changes its perception. The Bills never did win a Super Bowl. Nor did the Vikings. Nor did the Browns. All wait for another chance.

A loss today, and the Bucs risk joining that company. A loss today, and it doesn't matter that the team was 13-4 and won its division and won a playoff game for the first time in three years. All that will matter is that the Bucs will have lost to Philly, and the disappointment will be so familiar the team owners might call up Tony Dungy and fire him all over again.

Ah, but if they win? Then all of the pain goes away.

Games are for athletes, but championships are for competitors. And competitors keep trying. More than anything else in sports, this is the lesson. It doesn't matter what happened before. This time, maybe the offense will click. This time, maybe someone will tackle Brian Mitchell. This time, maybe the result will change.

Today, the Bucs can change their image. They can alter what a nation thinks of them and says of them.

Or they can repeat it.

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