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Happy with Bucs? Thank Rich McKay

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2001

TAMPA -- Rich McKay overcame his advantages. First coach of the Bucs was his dad, John (1976-84), so teenager Rich got noticed, even embraced, by Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse.

His professional godfather.

Before long, with Princeton education and Stetson law degree, young McKay was on a Hugh-fueled power path. Critics guffawed, even whined, seeing Rich's rise in a floundering Bucs organization as unproductive and laced with seminepotism.

Due to money-grubbing Culverhouse tactics, the Bucs became infamous, perpetual NFL losers. But look at them now. Super Bowl contenders. Respected. Now employing 12 players who have been recent Pro Bowlers.

Oh, yes, he overcame.

At the core of Tampa Bay success is Rich McKay, the late Culverhouse's cerebral/competitive protege, who could be today's biggest winner among NFL general managers.

Last season ended with sour Bucs faces, an unforgettably dreadful Sunday in Philadelphia, where they lost a first-round playoff game. But Tampa Bay goings-on since, in the tricky and oft-lethal era of the NFL salary cap, have been remarkable.

McKay deals have dramatically sweetened an already imposing roster. While many cap-calamitous franchises are being savaged by hyperactive misspending, Tampa Bay has been adept at keeping core players plus adding dynamic talents.

Money was found to hire Brad Johnson, giving rare stability to coach Tony Dungy's quarterback position. Ryan Leaf was signed, too, but he came cheap after the former No. 1 draft pick bombed physically and emotionally in San Diego.

McKay's most electric shocker was hiring gifted pass rusher Simeon Rice, a major force, turning an already imposing Bucs defensive department into a downright scary challenge for 2001 opponents.

All along, McKay was using a crackling mind and whirring calculator, straining to make sure Tampa Bay avoided the cap blunders that have devastated Jacksonville, San Francisco, Dallas and other teams.

John Lynch and Marcus Jones were looming unrestricted free agents, called URAs in pro football babble, but McKay signed both before a Pro Bowl safety and a late-flowering defensive end could go shopping for deeper green.

Challenges kept coming.

Offensive tackles are especially fragile Bucs positions. Dependable if unspectacular Paul Gruber retired. Jerry Wunsch wasn't Pro Bowl stuff, but he became a valuable commodity, a UFA who sought offers from elsewhere along with Ronde Barber, a solid cornerback.

McKay mused last month, "If we can just keep one of them, that would be pretty good." He did far better. Barber and Wunsch both reupped. Neither the GM nor Dungy will tip college-draft desires, but if a promising tackle is around when they pick 21st, the Bucs should further enhance the OL.

A year ago the Bucs helped that neighborhood, signing guard Randall McDaniel and center Jeff Christy, both former Minnesota standouts. Still another former Pro Bowl husky from the Vikings, tackle Jeff Steussie, became available last month. I wondered if more purple might be added to Dungy's scheme.

Clearly, considering their hunger for tackles, the Bucs were not enchanted by Steussie's recent seasons. Interest was nil, even though the former Cal-Berkeley guy coaxed a $6-million signing bonus out of the Carolina Panthers.

Tampa Bay kept options open.

Oh, sure, McKay loses some players, but the pain has been minimal this off-season, with tight end Patrick Hape leaving for Denver and linebacker Don Davis going to St. Louis. Frankly, neither was worth the money they received from the Broncos and Rams.

Damien Robinson, a safety, is a free agent still shopping the NFL for heavier money. Tampa Bay is prepared to use Dexter Jackson in Robinson's spot, with McKay seeing it as a bonus if Robinson opts to stay.

"If you pay too many huge signing bonuses, it can lead to down-the-road trouble," McKay said. "If you're handling 2001 payroll by dipping from resources that should be set aside for 2004 or 2005, I see that as creating real discomfort."

Though several teams took $30-million-plus plunges for 2001 signing bonuses, Tampa Bay has spent $16-mil. "We're okay for now and also next year, when (running back) Warrick Dunn comes up (for renewal)," McKay said.

Why do NFL franchises get cap stupid? Mostly, it's ego, triggered by coaches and owners who go nuts in mega-staffing for the season upcoming, rather than taking a sharp, long-range approach.

Rich McKay is a whopper asset.

One time, Culverhouse was right.

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