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Road to NFC Central title more like a roller coaster

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 9, 2000


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TAMPA -- There was something irregular about the best regular season in Bucs history.

The team-record 11 wins, the first NFC Central title in 18 years and a first-round bye in the playoffs did not come without a few hiccups.

General manager Rich McKay was nearly winded after doing a quick review of the '99 campaign the other day.

"We have a first week of training camp," McKay said, "a great week of practice. We go down to Miami and really have about as fine (a group) of practices as we could ever have. Look good, feel good, go out in the scrimmage and get destroyed. Everybody writes the next week we're done, no offense. Can't win. We have four good preseason games, then have our worst game of the year. It's been truly a unique year that way. Usually, there's that steady climb. It's been a little different."

For McKay, who helped coach Tony Dungy construct the NFC Central champs by adding 21 free agents and 23 draft picks since '96, the reward is the excitement that has galvanized the community over a Super Bowl contender.

"I feel best for the fans, the guys who went down to city council and brought the pompoms," McKay said. "The guys that screamed and yelled at the county commission and went to the legislature. The most rewarding part to me is those people because they didn't have to. It wasn't their job. It was my job. It was our job to try to make it work.

"They did it with passion. And for them, it's very rewarding. To see the people that came out here the other night, it's why you want to hang in there and get it done. Because there is something special about being an NFL city. We tried to sell it, but it had been so long since we had any success, I don't think people had any feel for it. So the rewarding part of it to me is for all the people that hung in there, and all the people that gave their extra effort, hopefully got a little enjoyment out of it with a beverage of their choice Sunday afternoon."

DECISION TIME: McKay said the NFL and the union have agreed to delay the start of the free-agency period to March 2, giving clubs more time to evaluate the draft and how their personnel needs relate to the salary cap.

But the Bucs have some decisions that have to be made more quickly than that.

Among them is whether to re-sign quarterback Trent Dilfer, a debate that will rage at One Buc Place for weeks after the season. Another is the future of left tackle Paul Gruber, who might retire after his 12th season was ended with a broken right fibula. "In that case, you're going to do it in mid-February," McKay said.

Other free agents include center Tony Mayberry and linebacker Hardy Nickerson.

"We try to have a little bit of a feel for where is the draft," McKay said. "What can we anticipate, what can we anticipate? And the same thing for free agency."

OVERLOOKED: Amid all the post-season awards, one Buc consistently has been left out: cornerback Donnie Abraham.

Had safety Damien Robinson not knocked the ball out of his hands at Chicago, Abraham would've led the NFL with eight interceptions. As it was, he tied for the league lead with four others. Two picks he returned for touchdowns and a third score was erase because of an illegal block.

At least Abraham is a Pro Bowl alternate at cornerback. "The more games you win, the more people look at your ballclub," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "On this ballclub, they're going to keep finding good players. They keep overlooking one player every year, and that's Donnie Abraham. There's no doubt about it. He's one of the premier corners in the league and they're going to keep looking at this ballclub and then pretty soon they're going to find out. All of us don't have the personality or the mouth I have. But all of us play this game at a high level."

ON THE TUBE: NFL Under the Helmet at 11 a.m. today on Ch. 13 includes a feature on Mike Alstott, Dave Moore and Brad Culpepper going fishing. ... Several players with Florida connections will be featured when NFL Films debuts a special for Lifetime Television entitled NFL Stories: Straight From the Heart. The show premieres at 7 p.m. Thursday. One of the most compelling pieces focuses on former Bucs cornerback Charles Dimry and his efforts to raise three children alone after the death of wife Francine from) leukemia. Another will focus on the Bucs-Giants game that pitted cornerback Ronde Barber against twin Tiki. They and mom Geraldine Barber wore microphones for the game in Tampa.

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