The Bucs passed the test in the final football game at the Vet, but they are ready for a change.
By RICK STROUD
Published September 6, 2003
TAMPA - Here's what's harder than the turf at Veterans Stadium.
Try going to Philadelphia in January with the temperature below freezing, to a putrid place with a cramped locker room where you've watched your season die twice, haven't won in three consecutive tries and play the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.
The Bucs have been there, done that.
They stunned the Eagles 27-10 to advance to Super Bowl XXXVII, symbolically nailing the doors shut on the Vet.
So how does opening the regular season at a brand-spanking-new stadium like Lincoln Financial Field compare to that?
"Let's just say we're battle tested," safety John Lynch said.
Anyone who is a veteran of the Vet welcomes a change. It was a place where rats have been shooed from the end zone, with the worst carpet this side of Marv Albert, where former Bears receiver Wendell Davis blew out both knees - on the same play.
"That turf is just horrible. After a game like that, you always feel sore," said Bucs guard Jason Whittle, who played there each season as a member of the Giants. "When I was up in New York, it seemed like after that game (at the Vet) we always had a ton of injuries."
On the other hand, even with the most vile fans in the NFL, there was something unique about the atmosphere of the Vet.
"Other than that, it was a great place to play," Whittle said. "You knew the fans were going to be into it, and that's great. That's what football is all about. They may be booing you, but at the same time, if they're booing, you must be doing something right."
Lynch said the Philly fans made the difference, anyway.
"You did hear the fans call you stuff all the time, and you did hear stuff in Philly that you never heard anywhere else," Lynch said. "It was always fun driving in. The middle finger seems to be quite popular up there."
Still, the Eagles enjoyed a tremendous advantage at the Vet. The crowd was loud and made communicating near impossible. But you can say that about a lot of stadiums.
"Raymond James has sure damn helped a lot. I can tell you that," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "You can't hard count us here. That's why I keep those fans on them. It can aid you. But they ain't making no tackles or catches or anything like that. And when you're on your game like we were a year ago, you can't beat us.
"I can think of some nastier places to try and go get a win. Try Lambeau at minus-11 degrees, the third-coldest game in the history of Lambeau. Try winning that one. And I'd like to see somebody come in here and try to get a big win in here."
While it's true the world champions recently have opened the next season at home, Bucs coach Jon Gruden is content with Monday night's assignment.
"I mean, the Raiders were in the Super Bowl, too, and they're playing at Tennessee Sunday night," Gruden said. "Obviously, there was a pattern there that was developed somewhere by the schedule makers. So it doesn't just affect us. It affects a lot of teams. You know, Atlanta is opening up on the road. Here's a good team that won a playoff game. So welcome to the NFL. When you have a good season or a great season, you play a tougher schedule."
Besides, there has never been a stadium that has thrown a block or made a tackle.
"We talked about that a little bit yesterday," Gruden said. "You can respect the opponent, and certainly some opponents more than others earn your respect. But if you fear stadiums and you fear certain cities, good luck. You'd better not even go.
"It's a brand-new stadium and I'm anxious to see it. It'll be a real test to see where we are as a team, that's for sure."