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Bucs can only wonder: What if?


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2001

TAMPA -- Around here, Warren Sapp is fond of bellowing, when an NFL opponent threatens the Bucs in Tampa, "Not in our house!"

Not only did the Giants take over Tampa Bay's football rehearsal house, then the Bucs' ballpark, Christian Peter homesteaded in Big 99's locker.

It's an up-close-and-agonizing experience not only for Bucs players, coaches and front-office people but their downcast mid-Florida constituency, knowing Tampa Bay's team should've been a stout Super Bowl XXXV threat. . .

Seeing the Giants, as NFC champions, readying for today's ultimate NFL passion play in the non-palatial but nonetheless historic One Buccaneer Place digs of Dungy, Sapp, Lynch, Dunn, Brooks, Alstott, Moore and fellow disappointees.

"It hurt, seeing our equipment guys dressed in Giants blue all week, hanging New York jerseys and jocks in our stalls," Bucs tight end Dave Moore said. "Looking onto our practice fields, I saw Giants strolling out with their video cameras, recording moments that we still believe should've been ours. But, frankly, it would be even worse if it was the (NFC Central rival) Minnesota Vikings."

Trouble was, Tampa Bay botched a late-season game at Chicago, then lost again in the traumatic cold of Green Bay, a Martin Gramatica field goal shivering wide right, costing the Bucs the NFC Central championship and a first-round playoff bye.

As a wild card, Tampa Bay became a dead joker, a trumped king, with a beyond-rotten effort that failed 21-3 against the Eagles in the January nip of Philadelphia.

"After that terrible Sunday, we got notes to clean out our lockers," All-Pro safety John Lynch said. "That's getting slammed with reality.

"We had to make room for the NFC representative in the Super Bowl. We thought it would be us. We had every opportunity and let it slip away. For a while, it seemed we couldn't be beaten."

Today, instead of absorbing more tumultuous pain, seeing the Giants against the Ravens in our house, the XXXV extravaganza at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs with highest notoriety will be fleeing the neighborhood.

Lynch is one of a league-high nine Tampa Bay players flying with families to Hawaii to play next Sunday in the Pro Bowl.

"It's not sour grapes when I say we totally believe the Eagles weren't as good as the Bucs, but they deserved to win that miserable afternoon at Veterans Stadium," he said. "You tell yourself to move on. Everybody in the Tampa Bay organization is searching for the tweaks that can get us to next year's Super Bowl."

John's locker at One Buc took on the XXXV odor of Giants sub Brandon Short. Michael Strahan changed clothes this week at Mike Alstott's place. Micheal Barrow was where Derrick Brooks usually dresses. Kerry Collins hung duds on Mark Royals' hooks.

Tony Dungy observed, from his desk.

"Giants equipment in our lockers ... watching them out at practice, it does enhance our sense of urgency, being reminded what big games are all about," said Tampa Bay's coach, having a clear but sobering view through his tinted plate-glass office window.

"It's disappointing to not be involved in this Super Bowl. We are excited about all the national attention on our city, but we counted on just half of these players being here, not both Baltimore and New York, but having the Bucs as participants."

Keyshawn Johnson, a NY-LA kind of flashy bloke, was surely offended, being replaced in his locker by non-celebrity Derek Engler, the Giants' center. Lyle West is the stand-in for Warrick Dunn.

Tiki Barber didn't crash in his brother's One Buc space, but instead used the digs of 330-pound Tampa Bay tackle George Hegamin. Kevin Lewis, a rookie linebacker, was where you usually find Shaun King.

"I keep thinking of the late-season chances we had to make our road a lot smoother," Moore said. "Earn a bye, then go to Giants Stadium on a 37-degree day with little or no wind. Something we like to think we could've handled (in the NFC Championship Game)."

It's coulda, woulda, shoulda.

Tampa Bay stews in a nauseating cauldron. Thinking it, feeling it and saying it isn't doing it. So the Bucs vacated, making room for the Giants, like a wilted rose being replaced in Pasadena's famous parade.

"I'm glad to be flying away before kickoff," Lynch said. "It makes it especially hard, seeing two defense-led teams involved, because our D has so much pride. But it also gives us a lot of hope.

"I'm sure Tony Dungy is smiling. This is a load of evidence that defense can be the catalyst for Super Bowl success. We're soul searching. Everybody is checking out themselves.

"I'm glad for Trent Dilfer, making it with the Ravens. A lot of us Bucs shared Monday dinner with our old teammate, at the restaurant where we said goodbye to Trent as our quarterback only a few months earlier. I wish our guys could've done it with him."

So they go, headed for Oahu and leis and pig roasts, plus that Pro Bowl thing, not only Lynch but Sapp, Alstott, Dunn, Brooks, Gramatica, Randall McDaniel, Jeff Christy and Donnie Abraham. Hawaii is terrific, the Pro Bowl a whopper of an honor, but the Tampa Bay Nine flies west with an emptiness.

It's Dilfer Ravens vs. One Buc Giants.

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