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Pewter bunch looking Super

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2001

TAMPA -- Despite getting nobody from the USF draft eruption, the 2001 Bucs punctuated their dazzling off-season with a weekend rich in prospects, imposing with position-by-position purpose and also inflaming of Super Bowl expectations.

I'm picking them.

Bucs to make XXXVI.

Not long ago, Tampa Bay regularly was ridiculed as the April fool of NFL talent tappings, but the new-era Bucs -- with deepening talent, respected coaching and personnel wizardry -- unquestionably will be good enough to make the Super Bowl.

I mean now.

"I welcome the expectations," Tony Dungy said Sunday. "It means, on paper, you're pretty good. What counts is how you deal with it; realizing games in September and October count every bit as much as those in December.

"Everybody recalls a missed (field-goal) kick in Green Bay last December, but we gave away a couple of games earlier that could've made that Sunday against the Packers a lot different."

They're much better now.

So, let's spew expectations with kerosene. Stir the smoking coals. Enhance the flames beneath Dungy and coaching associates as well as Brad Johnson, Warren Sapp, Keyshawn Johnson, John Lynch, Mike Alstott, Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn and fellow Ray-J jocks.

"We used to be everybody's choice for homecoming in the NFL," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "I'll take the high expectations, no matter the pressures involved, instead of being everybody's favorite punching bag.

"Five straight years, they celebrated Alumni Day in Green Bay by playing against us. It's their version of homecoming; wanting as little chance of losing as possible. High expectations beat the heck out of that."

My guess: an 11-5 record.

Up to 13-5 by XXXVI.

How different from Bucs draft weekends past, when a stumbling franchise continually searched for a miracle worker to lead Tampa Bay from the NFL dungeon. Those were seasons of clunkers, but today's Bucs are more of a Ferrari in need only of some fine-tuning and more offensive octane. A vehicle that should be expected to run a heroic race.

Help keeps coming.

In considerable need of an offensive left tackle, the Bucs maneuvered into a massive gem, Kenyatta Walker of Florida. Prospects followed at safety, tight end, corner, guard and defensive end.

During the coming season and well into '02, this draft will be graded almost exclusively on the work of first-rounder Walker. Then, in '03 and '04, the other Tampa Bay picks must be flowering to a reasonable extent, producing two or three starters, if this weekend's pickings are to become a Grade A group.

I do wish they had located a gifted-if-raw wide receiver to compete with Keyshawn's underlings. Dungy and McKay are more sold on their total wide-receiver corps than am I. Who doesn't hope they're right and I'm not in such sweet assessments of 'Quezzie Green, Reidel Anthony, Karl Williams and Frank Murphy?

Even I hope so.

As not-so-familiar collegiate names of Sunday were draft flowing, the Bucs snagged a Yale fellow who earlier attended Stanford. Even if the imposing academician is not to become the next Lynch at safety, maybe Than Merrill can help the guys with their syntax. I do hear some needs there.

Oh, the evolution ...

Ten years ago, when the Bucs were subdreadful, many of my Tampa Bay neighbors would've traded a month of sunshine and two lanes of the Gandy Bridge for something as NFL palatable as an 8-8 season. Our community had been beaten into weeping, embarrassing submission by a ghastly succession of double-digit-loss Bucs years.

But now, with the rising tease of a 41-27 record the past four seasons, I sense a Tampa Bay populace now somewhat tiring of mere 10-win seasons that do not lead to Super Bowls. Human nature. Understandable progression. Hamburgers turn into pork chops, so the appetite naturally advances to yearning for chateaubriand.

Expectations are tasty.

In 2001, to not make the playoffs would be unthinkable. Losing in the first round, especially in ways so putrid as in Philadelphia in January, will now be classified as a calamity.

Flying in a faster lane.

In that spirit, feeling the Bucs have impressively addressed most all shortcomings, including the hiring of Brad Johnson at quarterback, since I'm about to retire, I'll make some hit-and-run picks, fingering Tampa Bay to rule the NFC Central, then win the NFC Championship Game against St. Louis before contesting Lord Baltimore in XXXVI at New Orleans.

Win it? Maybe so.

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