Real thing . . . or faux glow?
© St. Petersburg Times,
When the sky is the limit, the view is magnificent. From such heights, the Tampa Bay Bucs can almost see a happy ending.
Way up here, at the altitude of their expectations, there is a regal view, a castle-on-a-mountainside view, a gods-of-Olympus view. This is top of the world stuff, Ma. The air is thin and pure, and the clouds gather at their ankles, and the wind carries the smell of champagne from the distance.
Whatever they do, however, the Bucs should not look down.
From here, it's a long way to fall.
Also, there are rocks.
The Bucs step onto the high-wire again today. They will attempt to overcome the optimism, endure the magazine covers and survive the glowing predictions. They will show up in training camp to take their chances with another football season.
As they step onto the rope, they will try not to think about the plunge, and the possibility of another season turning out bloody.
It is risky business, this role of favorite. The Bucs enter the season, once again, as one of the two or three fashionable picks to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Already, you can imagine Warrick Dunn hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, and Warren Sapp hoisting them both. Already, you can debate the parade route.
But what if the Bucs don't win it all?
Is anything else good enough?
Down there, in the depths of disappointment, teammates get into fistfights and coaches grump at each other. Down there, under achievement, it feels a lot like last season.
You remember, don't you? If there was nothing else to salvage from the Bucs' 2000 season, it is this: For the first time in the history of this franchise, getting to the playoffs didn't erase the ugly.
Has it come to this for the Bucs? Has the football season become an all-or-nothing, treasure or trouble proposition? Are the only choices winning the ultimate game, or bearing the ultimate shame?
"I don't think we're to the point where the season is a failure if we don't win the Super Bowl," coach Tony Dungy said. "I've seen places where it's like that, in Pittsburgh and San Francisco and Dallas, where it was a bad year if you didn't win the Super Bowl. We've never won one. I know the expectations in the community are higher, but we've had the same expectations every year for the last five years."
Now that the playoffs have become familiar ground, what is good enough anymore? If the Bucs reach the NFC title game this year but lose, will that satisfy people? If they make it to the second round but lose on a controversial call? It's hard to say. It depends on the flow of the season, on how the Bucs deal with the speed bumps along the way. But when a team has reached a point where it is impossible for it to overachieve, the footing becomes treacherous.
For the Bucs, it is easy to think of last year in terms of the playoffs that might have been. If the Bucs had managed one more victory out of an inconsistent season, if a field goal had been straightened out or a receiver covered or a football not been fumbled, they would have had a first-round bye and a second-round home game. In a league where the home team usually wins, that would have made the Bucs favorites to reach their second straight NFC title game.
Dungy thinks of it another way, however.
"I don't think of "What if,' " he said. "I think of "Why not?' Why didn't we win one more game? Why did we lose to the Bears after beating them 41-0? Why did we have games where we didn't play up to our potential?"
Dungy's approach always has been simple. He talks of three things: Playing hard, keeping focus and limiting mistakes. Out of 16 games, he said, he thinks the Bucs managed that about nine times.
Up here, where optimism soars, you can imagine the Bucs finding a cure for such inconsistency. There is a new quarterback, a fine young left tackle, a new defensive end. The players say the right things.
Down there, there are bamboo shoots and spiders and the big boulder that chased Indiana Jones. There are jackals. Down there, they have forgotten the Titans.
Imagine the Bucs finishing this season in the same manner of last year. After all, the oddsmakers would tell you that most elite teams die between the start of the playoffs and the end. Would there be more players like Chidi Ahanotu who would lose their jobs? More coaches like Les Steckel? Would Dungy be at risk?
First things first: It is idiotic to consider firing a coach who leads his team to the playoffs. Look at the teams that have done it; it doesn't work out. For another thing, who the heck is out there who you want better? Look at the list of last year's coaching hires? Are you going to trade Dungy for any of them?
That said, last year seemed particularly ugly.
"I was disappointed, but no more so than in '97," Dungy said. "In '99 (with the loss to the Rams in the NFC title game), I felt we did about all we could do, considering that we lost our quarterback, two tackles and we were on the road. I was disappointed in '98, because we missed the playoffs. I've been disappointed three out of the last four years."
Up here, you can see beyond the disappointment. In the distance, you can hear Keyshawn crowing.
That's what it's like on the ledge. Either the Bucs will have a great autumn, or they will have a great fall.
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