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Super Bowl XXXVII

The best: Say it, savor it

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- Say it slowly. Let the words slide across your tongue so you may taste the sweetness of each syllable. After all this time, let the flavor linger. Savor.

Champions of the world.

Say it firmly. Talk with conviction and belief. After all this time, let go of the doubt. Swagger.

Champions of the world.

Say it loudly. Speak the words as brashly and as brutally as the Bucs played. After all this time, crank up the volume. Shout.

Champions of the world.

Doesn't it sound strange and staggering and amazing and impossible and about a million years in coming? The Tampa Bay Bucs, yesterday's punchline, the bumblers from bumpkinsville, are kings of the NFL.

Playing against the most storied franchise in the AFC, in the heart of Raider Nation, as an underdog, behind early, the Bucs simply crushed the supposedly fearsome, supposedly forceful Oakland Raiders. The defense, the most vicious of its time, had its finest hour.

Say it repeatedly. Again and again and again. Say it once for each of those losing seasons, once for every one of those dreadful decisions, once for all those horrible times when this was a team without a chance.

Champions of the world.

Say it with John Lynch. He doesn't mind.

"Champion," Lynch said. "It's a great word. I can't describe it. I guess everyone feels like this every year, but coming from where we came from, digging the last 10 years, it's unbelievable."

You lived to see it. Forget about the man on the moon and the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union. Forget about the O.J. trial and Woodstock and cable TV. This was the darndest sight of your life. The Bucs, dancing around a Super Bowl field, champions at last.

By Buc years, it took so long. By Chucky years, it happened so quickly.

Let's be honest. Only a few weeks ago, none of us had any reason to believe this team would meld into the dominating force it has been in the playoffs. Yes, the defense was great, but we had seen that before, and we knew that by itself, even great defense is not enough.

Rarely has a team improved on the run the way this Bucs offense has. Halfway through the season, the Bucs could not run or block, and a drive to the end zone always looked as if it were going uphill.

Then the transformation began. Jon Gruden's offense began to sink in, and Brad Johnson began to stay upright, and suddenly it seemed as if every other play featured a receiver running ahead of an overmatched linebacker. In the games Brad played, the Bucs began to resemble a complete team.

Still, who would have forecast this? Who would think the Bucs would sweep through the 49ers, Eagles and Raiders by a combined 106-37? They seemed to get better every week, every series, every play. They became more daring, more ferocious, more confident.

Against the Raiders, they were incredible. Five sacks. Five interceptions. Three touchdown returns. Except for a brief, fleeting spurt in the fourth quarter, Oakland was harmless.

It was the finest victory in franchise history, breaking the record of last week, which broke the record of the week before. One more time, this magnificent, mauling defense was too fast, too furious for an opposing offense. Gruden was in the Raiders' heads, and Greg Spires was in their face, and Derrick Brooks was on their backs.

The Super Bowl has never seen a defensive performance like this. The Ravens? Come on. They beat Kerry Collins in the Super Bowl. The Bears? They beat Tony Eason. The Steelers? For all their rep, they gave up 73 points in four Super Bowls.

"You have to put us up there beside those guys," Warren Sapp said. "None of those guys beat the No. 1 offense."

This was Rich Gannon and the supposedly wonderful Raiders, and until the game was out of reach, they couldn't figure out directions to the first-down marker. Gannon looked confused. Jerry Rice looked old. Al Davis looked like a rube who had traded his horse away for a bag of used draft picks.

As great as the defense was, however, and as improved as the offense has become, the best thing about the Bucs is this. They believe.

This season, under Gruden, the Bucs have gained a mental edge they lacked in their previous seasons. A bad start doesn't bother them, or a bad break or a bad call.

Even Sunday night, when the Bucs' special teams play let the Raiders back in the door, when two quick touchdowns made things a little hairy, you never got the feeling a collapse was at hand. Sure enough, the Bucs scored a defensive touchdown, then another one, and Chucky and the Chuckettes were chuckling again.

There are a lot of people to feel good about here. Start with the Bermuda Triangle of Brooks, Sapp and Lynch. When they entered, this was a cloddish, clownish franchise. They've changed the face of it. Give them the first three rings.

Give a ring to Gruden, who convinced his team this was possible. Give a ring to Monte Kiffin, the rare mad scientist to achieve world conquest. Give a ring to Rich McKay and allow him to share it with his dad.

Give a ring to Joe Jurevicius, and to Keyshawn Johnson, and to Brad. Give a ring to Simeon Rice and to Shelton Quarles and to Mike Alstott. To Spires, who made you notice him Sunday.

Give a ring to Dexter Jackson, the MVP. Give one to Michael Pittman and Dwight Smith and Keenan McCardell and everyone else who could have won the award. Never has one unit deserved to sell the car and split up the profits as much as this one.

Give a ring, also, to those who helped along the way. To all the coaches who never had a chance. To all the quarterbacks who had to leave to succeed. To all the disappointments who were swallowed whole by the wretchedness of the franchise. To Dungy and Selmon and Wilder. To Logan and Wood and Gruber. To Mayberry and Mayhew and Nickerson.

This was the ultimate victory by the ultimate underdog. The Bengals will take heart from this. And the Clippers and the Rays, and the Washington Generals and Vanderbilt and the Lightning.

Say it repeatedly. Swap stories of little moments and big plays, and of the moment you first started to believe. Talk about the fire and the fury and, of course, the future. Next year starts tomorrow.

Champions of the World.

Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

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