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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2000
ST. LOUIS -- He moved from the field quickly, angrily, leaving a season over his shoulder. Another football team was celebrating behind John Lynch, the wrong one, and he was not pleased at the concept.
This was the final snapshot of a team that died angry, a face twisted, tortured by goals not quite accomplished. This is what happens when bad endings happen to good stories, not to mention offenses and defenses. This was a sweet little run ending the bitter feeling of a game that slipped away.
They died how they thrived, these Bucs. In the end, they were everything you have grown to expect, wonderful defense, horrible offense and excruciatingly close results. They lost by the strange score of 11-6 to a supposedly unstoppable St. Louis Rams team, a consolation that seemed to escape them as they filed into their locker room.
They were one step away from a Super Bowl, five minutes, 42 yards, one play. There was the baffling call by the replay official, and the bungled call by the offensive coordinator, and the brilliant catch by the Rams' receiver, and the botched playclock by the kid quarterback.
Add the numbers up how you will, and they still come up short.
The Bucs' season is over.
Long after you have forgotten the plays, you will remember the faces, the curled lips, the jutting chins. This was the look of players who expected to win this game, despite the point spread, despite the Rams' offense, despite the Dome.
The knowledge of the end came hard to Brad Culpepper, the defensive tackle, who sat at his locker and stared into space. His eyes were glassy, like a fighter's. His teeth were clenched. A steady stream of profanity spilled from his lips.
"I've never been this upset after a game," Culpepper said. "The thing is, the Rams are such a joke. They talked smack all week, and we were one play from sticking it up their butt. The thing is, you don't know when you'll get this opportunity again. This is the easy part. The hard part is getting here."
Eventually, the bitterness will subside, the Bucs will remember what a magnificent run they made. Eventually, for them, for those who watched them, the pain of the way it ended will give way to the pleasure of getting here. This was a truly likeable team, that had quite a run. For now, however, the noise of the hometown fans cheering kept filtering into the locker room, and the faces of the Bucs remained haunted. In one corner, Frank Middleton was snarling, referring to the Rams as punks. In another, Warren Sapp smiled sadly and shrugged, determined to be upbeat.
"When you live on the high wire, sometimes you fall," said Chidi Ahanotu, shaking his head. "We can't keep living by the skin of our teeth. We need some more points."
For a while, six seemed as if it would be sufficient. How many games did the Bucs play like this one all season? When the offense seemed overmatched, when the defense harangued another opponent, when the Bucs found a way to win ugly? For a while, it seemed as if it would happen again Sunday. The vaunted Rams' offense seemed bewildered. The Bucs clung to a baseball-like score of 6-5 with five minutes to go. And the team seemed to be making its final approach into Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport.
Plays from the final 12 minutes, however, will linger in this team's memory for some time to come.
Start with the clock that died. With just over 11 minutes to go, the Bucs decided to go for a fourth-and-2 at the St Louis 35, even though they were within range of a long Martin Gramatica field goal. Shaun King hit Bert Emanuel with a crossing pass to the Rams' 16, within distance of a kill shot. But before the snap, he let the play-clock run out. After the penalty, the Bucs had no choice but to punt.
Take the next series, when the Bucs took over at midfield. Field position was theirs, and their style is to pound the ball. Instead, they tried to throw on first down, and King was sacked. On third-and-11, he was intercepted, setting up the Rams at the Bucs' 47. After that, they drove for their only touchdown. If they had protected the ball then, the Rams would have to drive 80 yards or more. "No way they score then," linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "Not if we play for a month."
Then came the final drive, after Ricky Proehl's catch gave the Rams a lead. The Bucs had a first-and-10 at the Rams' 22, but again, King took a sack. Still, he hit Emanuel for a pass to the Rams' 21. However, the replay official challenged on the play, and although there did not appear to be a replay conclusive enough to reverse the call, it was taken back. Two incomplete passes later, the Bucs' season was over.
Such are the images that will haunt the Bucs of a game that got away and a season that died. Such are the questions that will linger for months. Why was the Emanuel catch overturned? Why would the Bucs abandon their identity and try to throw? Why can't this offense pull its weight?
"Until the last fourth down, I thought we were a team of destiny," Lynch said. "I thought it was going to happen. What strikes you is how quick it is over. I'm not ready for this season to be finished."
None of us are, really. This was a team that touched Tampa Bay. The running back (Warrick Dunn) who gives away the down payment to houses. The linebacker (Derrick Brooks) who takes kids to Africa. The quarterback from down the block. The coach with the quiet dignity. The defense that loaded the offense over its shoulder and carried it.
"This hurts," Sapp said. "It's disappointing. But we have to remember where we came from."
Eventually, the frustrations of the final chapter will end for the rest of Tampa Bay, too. Eventually, you will be able to enjoy the season as it played out.
For now, you are wearing John Lynch's face, and Brad Culpepper's eyes and Frank Middleton's fury. For now, you, too, are upset the ride had to end at all.
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