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Bucs see what could've been

After watching Ravens win with their "recipe,'' Bucs' large Pro Bowl group mulls its missed chance in 2000.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2001


HONOLULU -- The practice field at the Ihilani resort serves as a magnificent tropical backdrop for a snapshot of Pro Bowl players.

You can see the sun dancing on the surface of the sea and survey the swells while breathing the unmistakable scent of salt in the air.

It was here Tuesday that the NFC players representing the Bucs gathered for a group photo, but the contingent was so large, the shot should have been aerial.

photo
[AP photo]
Warren Sapp says he still is bothered by the Bucs' playoff exit in Philadelphia.
It was right about then when something besides the shutter clicked. What's wrong with this picture?

How can the Bucs, who have by far the most players in the Pro Bowl, keep falling short of the Super Bowl?

"Look, we have nine guys over here," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "This is a very good team. It's no longer a question of talent.

"If anybody on this team is over that Philadelphia loss (in the playoffs) and the way it ended, I don't want them on our team anymore. I want this feeling to stick in my mind in a negative way. It will motivate me this off-season. Just like we used the loss to St. Louis last year (in the NFC title game) in a positive way, we should feel at least that bad about what happened in Philly. As one of the leaders on this team, a veteran team, we need a shake-up."

Nothing shook the Bucs up like their 16-13 overtime loss to Green Bay in the final regular-season game. It cost them the NFC Central title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. With one win at home, they would have returned to the championship game.

Instead, all the Bucs have is this postcard from the ledge -- an exit in the wild-card round with their lackluster loss to the Eagles.

Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who has not talked about the game, seems almost embarrassed by it.

"Everything about it still bothers me," he said. "I'm still not over it and won't be for a long time.

"It's eating on me right now. It's just a combination of things. I'm pretty sure that's what is going to drive me to be even better in 2001."

If there is another reason for the Bucs to feel worse about the 2000 season, it's how the Ravens won it all.

For five years Bucs coach Tony Dungy built his team with a dominant defense, a physical running attack and a caretaker quarterback, insisting that formula could win a Super Bowl.

This season the Ravens proved he was right and did it with Trent Dilfer, the quarterback the Bucs kicked overboard.

"It's our recipe, and they added a few of their own ingredients and made it work," Sapp said. "But make no mistake, it's our recipe."

But safety John Lynch said the Ravens' Super Bowl victory should make the Bucs better, not bitter.

"Nothing makes you better than competition," Lynch said. "I don't think there's any question we lost a little of our swagger and we didn't play as well as we're capable of playing on defense last season.

"(Baltimore) has the best defense in the league. It raises the bar. It has a way of bringing the best out of you.

"What we know after the Super Bowl is that our formula works."

Brooks said it is more important to prove that to Tampa Bay fans than to the team. But he said he is encouraged by the way Dungy has regained control of both sides of the offense and defense with the firing of offensive coordinator Les Steckel.

"I met with Tony before I left. I went in and sat in his office. Coach is taking a look at himself," Brooks said. "He talked about the changes he's going to make in himself to get this team back to where it should be.

"I think he's already started to do that by hiring Clyde (Christensen, quarterbacks coach) as offensive coordinator. What he said was, "This is my guy, and maybe he's not the popular choice, but it's the right choice for this team.' His influence is going to be on both sides of the ball.

"I think a message was sent. We can keep some of the good things that Les brought in -- the points, scoring in the red zone -- and maybe throw a little something else in there. To me, hiring Clyde was him getting control of our identity."

Brooks shook his head. He was still thinking about how Vikings receiver Cris Carter had needled center Jeff Christy in the NFC locker room about leaving Minnesota for Tampa Bay. The Vikings, who have five players in the Pro Bowl, reached the NFC title game before losing 41-0 to the Giants, who have two players in Hawaii.

"I don't think (the Vikings have) scored more than two touchdowns in a game against us at our place in three of the last four years," Brooks said.

"I thought we played terrible, and we still had one of the top 10 defenses in the league and still did some excellent things. There are teams in this league that would kill for a defense like the one we had this year. We're kind of victims of our own success, really. We set those those expectations. We like that type of pressure and would have it no other way."

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