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Hit the road, Bucs: Season starts at Philly

Tampa Bay will be first Super Bowl-winning team of past seven to open the season away from home.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 25, 2003

PHOENIX -- It wasn't enough for the Tampa Bay Bucs to close down Veterans Stadium for the Eagles in January.

Now the world champions have been scheduled to open Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field on the first Monday night of the 2003 season, a rematch of the NFC Championship Game.

That was one of four games announced Monday by the NFL for opening week. And as you might expect, it did not sit well with Bucs officials.

That's because the previous six defending Super Bowl champs hosted the first Monday night game after their world title season.

Instead, the Bucs will be pitted against their biggest rival. Before defeating the Eagles 27-10 in the conference championship at the Vet, Tampa Bay had lost three straight in Philadelphia, including two in the playoffs.

"You know New England was at home (to start the 2002 season) and the last six Super Bowl champions have played at home," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "I don't see why we need to break that trend. We sure would've liked to have played (the first Monday night) game at home. But we'll show up and play, and we'll make no excuses."

After learning they would start the season in Philadelphia, Bucs officials immediately began looking for a silver lining.

They anticipated having to play the Eagles on the road on a Monday night. And at least the game won't be played in freezing weather.

"We didn't call in and say, 'Hey, can you give us that one,"' general manager Rich McKay said.

"I kind of looked at it this way: Last year we opened at home against New Orleans and everyone said it's a guaranteed win. And everybody said, Week 17, guaranteed loss at Chicago at night. In actuality, the reverse happened. I've just come over the years not to worry about the schedule. The only thing you worry about is three straight games on the road. That's tough. This one, you hope that you open at home. But when you don't, get over it.

"It has become a good rivalry. It has become one where their fans are really into it and ours are too. ... I was much more exercised last year about having to go to Chicago in Week 17 and have to play at night."

Owner Jeff Lurie could not hide his enthusiasm after learning Lincoln Financial Field would open before a national television audience on Monday Night Football against the Eagles' biggest rival in the NFC.

"I think the place they least like to play is Philly," Lurie said. "But on the other hand, they played terrific against us in the championship game. I think it'll pit the teams that were the two best teams in the NFL last year. We split and, unfortunately, they won the bigger of the two.

"It's always been a hope that we could bring the opening Monday night of the season to Philly and the new stadium. We thought it would put Philly and our team in the spotlight, and we feel it's what we deserve after being in the championship game the last two years."

In addition to the Eagles, another big winner from Monday's announcement was ABC.

A year ago, Monday Night Football opened at New England where the defending Super Bowl XXXVI champions opened their new stadium. This game will have that and more.

"Here's the team that won the Super Bowl going back to where they won the (NFC) championship," said John Madden, color analyst for MNF. "And that (Eagles) team, playing in a new stadium. It doesn't get much better than that. That has the elements."

The NFL will begin the 2003 season when the New York Jets visit Washington on Thursday, Sept.4. Other opening games announced Monday include a rematch of the AFC title game with Oakland visiting Tennessee. The other featured games will be Atlanta at Dallas and Indianapolis at Cleveland.

But no game will generate more interest Week 1 than Tampa Bay at Philly.

"We'll just have to open their new stadium like we closed their old stadium," Bucs vice president Bryan Glazer said. "That's a pretty good motivation for the team."

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