© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003
The eyes. First, you notice the eyes. The hollow, hungry eyes that plead as they approach.
Something, the eyes say. Give me something.
The voices are soft, and you can hear a quiver in them. The voices are slightly hoarse but still polite.
Anything, the voices say. Tell me anything.
More and more, you see the victims. They approach you because it is too hard to stay away. They approach you because of a basic human need.
Please, they say.
Have you heard anything new about the Bucs?
As a community, Tampa Bay is two weeks into withdrawal. It has been 14 days since the Super Bowl, a week since the Pro Bowl, and Derrick Brooks hasn't tackled anyone. Not that we know of, anyway.
No one has returned an interception for a touchdown in days, and the defensive line hasn't sacked anyone. The season was so long ago that you can't even hear a Raider whine.
Wait ... yes, you can.
This is jolting stuff. The Bucs spent the better part of January on the darndest ride you could imagine, getting better every game, every possession, and then ... nothing. Just a sudden stop and silence.
You can't do that to people. Someone could embolize, for goodness' sake.
And so it is that people are starving for news. Any kind of news. Short of news, rumors. Short of rumors, sightings.
Tell us. Did Brad Johnson get another one of those three-times-a-week, three-dollars-a-shot haircuts? Did Warren Sapp appear in a new rap video? Has Bill Parcells talked to Keyshawn Johnson and, if so, was Keyshawn accepting questions? Did Martin Gramatica take out a contract on Todd Sauerbrun and, if so, does he need a donation?
Has Simeon Rice released a new statement that says he really, really admires Pat Tillman and the next time the Bucs promote a player from their minor-league team in Arizona, he hopes it's Tillman? Now that Buck Gurley is headed to Germany, has he brushed up on his foreign language? Now that Kerry Jenkins is headed home to Alabama, has he done the same?
Is Jon Gruden sleeping in until 3:45 these days? Is John Lynch going to address the team at his alma mater of Stepford ... oops, Stanford? How about Ronde Barber's knee surgery? Did doctors also operate on Tiki's knee, just to be sure they had the right Barber? Which, of course, brings us back to Brad's haircut.
Tampa Bay needs to know these things.
It has been the darndest fortnight in Tampa Bay history. You cannot go into a restaurant without seeing someone in Bucs gear. You cannot drive a block without passing a car with Bucs flags on it. It is as if people believe the parade is still going on, and by golly, they're going to grin till someone makes them go home.
(Helpful advice. If you have to call the police to report a stolen car, do not identify it as "the one with the Bucs flags on it." You might as well say, "Well, it had wheels.")
Bucs general manager Rich McKay runs into people all the time who don't want to turn loose of the season. They approach him at the grocery store, at the car wash, everywhere. The other night, he was at a driving range, hitting golf balls with his son. A construction worker saw him, approached him and said this:
"Can I have a hug?"
Said McKay: "I had never hugged a construction worker, and I can't say I ever had it as a goal."
Still, McKay hugged the construction worker -- all of us fans of the Village People wish we could say that, don't we? -- then went back to work on his driver. Hey, success should be embraced, right?
It's odd that February should be this quiet. Most seasons of this franchise, February has been quite a noisy month. There were coaches to fire, new hope to sell. There were high draft picks to hypnotize fans so they didn't notice the new ticket prices. Every now and then, there was a free agent.
This year? There is afterglow. There are flags. There are T-shirts. There are people who casually walk up to you and say, "I've been doing some figuring, and the Bucs' 23-point margin of victory in their playoff games was the highest since the Cowboys did the same in 1992, and it's tied for the fifth-highest since the Super Bowl began." And this is all so cool, you don't even yell at them.
Oh, there is news to come. The Bucs have a lot of work to do.
They have to decide what they're going to do for a backup quarterback, for instance, and whether Shaun King or Rob Johnson need to apply for the job. They have to re-sign Shelton Quarles, not only because he's a fine player, but because his name sounds like an argument at my house.
They need to begin work on new contracts for Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland, who are up after next season. They need to answer the phone because with Gruden, with the Bucs, with the best playing field in the league and with no state income tax, a lot of free agents are going to call.
As far as free agency, here's a hint. Don't think about the big-money guys who will be snapped up in the second week. Think, instead, about the impact made by Joe Jurevicius and Greg Spires over the last few weeks. That's the kind of help the Bucs need.
A guess? Maybe a couple of signees in March. One, maybe two, in June.
As for the draft, the Bucs pick 64th. Ah, the coveted will-you-still-need-me, will-you-still-feed-me position. That's a long wait for a team that spent so many years picking sixth in a five-player draft or fourth in a three-player draft. If I were Ruston Webster, the director of college scouting, I'd go around grousing that, darn the luck, it's a 63-player draft.
As for now, no news is good news. It means you should savor the moment. Things happen quickly in the NFL, and the roster will soon start to shift. Before your celebration is done, the team will be back in Celebration.
But think of this. The other night, McKay woke up from a dream that commissioner Paul Tagliabue had called him to inform him the Bucs' victory had been rescinded and there were still two more games to be played.
"I woke up, and it took a minute before I knew it wasn't real," McKay said. "I was ticked off."
Two more games? It doesn't sound like a problem, does it?
After all, one of the opponents is still the Raiders, isn't it?