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OLD-SCHOOL RULES

A team grinds to the NFC title game using a suffocating defense and ball-control offense. No, it's not NFL Legends Hour, it's the Bucs following an old-fashioned recipe for success.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2000

ST. LOUIS -- Maybe it's the change of the millennium, but we are more nostalgic than ever.

This is particularly true in sports, where retro ballparks and uniforms are all the rage and anything from yesteryear is a coveted collectible.

If you're longing for a keepsake from the NFL playoffs, pay close attention to the Buccaneers. That's because coach Tony Dungy has secured a bright future for the Bucs with a philosophy borrowed from his past. Who needs an experienced quarterback when you have a throwback system of winning with suffocating defense and a ball-control offense?

"Yeah, it is a little bit old school," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "It's Tony Dungy. I watched the NFL Films of the Steelers and the Vikings at Tulane Stadium and that's what they were talking about then, Chuck Noll's grind-it-out style and the dominating defense."

Expect a clash of styles in today's NFC Championship Game at the Trans World Dome.

The high-flying Rams have Arena League alumnus Kurt Warner, the NFL's Most Valuable Player, at quarterback. His 41 touchdown passes in the regular season were third-most in league history. Running back Marshall Faulk set a league record with 2,429 combined rushing and receiving yards.

One of the most explosive offenses ever assembled, the Rams averaged a league-high 33.8 points. The Bucs have the NFC's No. 1 defense. Tampa Bay's offense is 28th in the league. Since 1991, no team has won a Super Bowl with an offense that failed to rank in the top five.

"It's not a new phenomenon," Dungy said. "It's exciting to see the ball move up and down the field, and I admire great offense, I really do. But it's still a game and you still have to go out there that particular day and execute. And sometimes, the offense does better and sometimes the defense does better.

"I think you have to play to your strengths. You can win games and you can win championships a lot of different ways."

But can a team built on defense and running the football still triumph over the high-octane offenses of the 21st century?

Dungy said his team is reminiscent of the 1990 New York Giants, who defeated a high-powered 49ers offense 15-13 at San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game and then outlasted the Buffalo Bills 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV in Tampa.

"I think it was still the '90s when the Giants had to go to San Francisco, and San Francisco had all the mega stars on offense," Dungy said. "Then they played Buffalo the next week and Buffalo had gotten 51 points in the ice and snow and was unstoppable.. . .

"We wouldn't expect many people to feel we have a chance because of the style we play and the style St. Louis plays. I think everyone saw St. Louis really for the first time this weekend, and it was very awe-inspiring almost to see them run up and down the field and scoring almost at will. But every week is different and that's what makes the games. We'll go up there with our style, and we feel we've got a really good chance to win, and that's all that matters."

Phil Simms, who quarterbacked the Giants in 1990 until an injury forced them to turn to Jeff Hostetler, said his team's offense was more explosive than Tampa Bay's.

But Simms said the Bucs already have proven the old school way still works.

"I think we've already got the answer," Simms said. "That kind of says it all. Tampa Bay is in the NFC Championship Game.

"Greg (Gumbel) and I had a game in Tampa against Denver early in the year. I remember after the game was over and watching them all week long, I said this is the best defense in football. They're so dynamic, so overwhelming, they put so much pressure on teams that their offense doesn't have to do more than it does."

Dungy, who played point guard and quarterback at the University of Minnesota, likens today's game to basketball when one team insists on running and the other walks, seeking a half-court game.

"(St. Louis) is a team that presses you and fast-breaks," Dungy said. "And they want to force you into mistakes, and they want to get the game in their tempo and they feel eventually, they're going to get you to crack. If you crack, they get 17 points in three minutes somewhere in the course of the game, and they've done it all year. It's going to be our job to eliminate that.

"I don't know who we are, but we're somebody who plays good defense and slows the ball down. Maybe we're Temple."

But there is inherent danger in Dungy's schemes. If the offense fails to produce an effective ground game and chew the clock, opponents are within a quick scoring strike of changing the outcome.

"We didn't go into the season saying on offense, we want to be 28th," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "We've had some injuries, we haven't gotten some things done we would've liked to have gotten done. But, yes, we did go in with the philosophy that you can win a championship by being a defensive-oriented, ball-control football team. The one area that's been inconsistent for two years is we need to get better at making big plays in the play-action passing game. If that comes along for us, then all of a sudden, we present real problems."

Former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, an NFL analyst on ESPN, said the Bucs probably aren't balanced enough to win the Super Bowl.

"Defensively? Yes. Offensively? No," Jaworski said. "I'm just a big believer that today's game is now tailored to be explosive offensively. The teams that get to the Super Bowl can score points. This decade has shown that. The teams that have won multiple Super Bowls all had explosive offenses. If the Bucs are going to win this game, they have to get more out of their passing game."

But don't expect the Bucs to change their style today. Rookie quarterback Shaun King will direct a plodding, ball-control offense designed to shorten the game.

The Bucs will try to force the Rams to start deep in their territory and drag them into a low-scoring game.

"It's extremely frustrating to a team that all year long has attacked, attacked, attacked," said Lynch. "So much of it is how you feel about yourself, and all of a sudden they have to take the dink and dunk. It's frustrating, because these teams are used to quick hits, and when they've got to grind it out, work for everything they get, it's difficult. They get to a point that they feel like they have to make a play, and then we take advantage of it."

The NFL is a copycat league, so if the Bucs shut down the Rams' star-studded offense, old school may be in again.

"I think the best defensive teams in the league are still in there," Dungy said. "But if we or Tennessee win, then I think people say, "Well, maybe the smash mouth, conservative offense is the way to go.' If Jacksonville or St. Louis win, then people will say "That's what you have to do, you have to have that explosive offense and you've got to score a lot of points.' Hopefully, we can win one for the defense."

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