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Added down time presents Bucs a test

The NFL's schedule adjustment means Tampa Bay will go 21 days between its opener and its second game.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 15, 2001


TAMPA -- For Bucs coach Tony Dungy, routine is the key to success. Have a plan, stick to it, repeat it over and over.

But as the Bucs, the NFL and the rest of the country learned this week, unpredictable obstacles easily can change that routine.

With the postponement of Sunday's NFL games, the Bucs, Saints and Steelers find themselves in an unusual situation.

With no game Sunday and an open date next week, the teams aren't scheduled to play again until Sept. 30. That's a layoff of 21 days between games.

Those, running back Warrick Dunn said, are unchartered waters.

"It'll test our focus," said Dunn, who rushed for 56 yards on 22 carries in a 10-6 opening-week victory Sunday in Dallas. "But I guess what we can do is use this time to get better and move forward. Hopefully, the time that most guys miss will help us get back on the same page. Gives us time to work together, iron some things out and become a much more fluent NFL football team."

Pulling it off won't be easy.

While the majority of players expressed approval of the league's decision to suspend play for at least one week, the reality is that lack of game sharpness and conditioning could become an issue in the Bucs' first game back at Minnesota.

The team won't practice this weekend. Players return Monday for a light workout, are off Tuesday, then practice Wednesday and Thursday before going away again for a three-day weekend.

Dungy said the team will slip back into a "training camp" mode in which focus will be turned to fundamentals and polishing the offense. While the Bucs aren't going to practice twice daily, the coaching staff likely will use the opportunity to work on the game plan rather than plan for an opponent.

Defensive tackle Warren Sapp said the down time will be a challenge, but one the team is equipped to handle.

"I know the character of the head man," Sapp said. "I know the character of this locker room. Me, (John) Lynch, (Derrick) Brooks, Keyshawn (Johnson) and Brad Johnson will make sure this team has its eye on the prize. ... We have to be ready to go when it's time for us to go. This team should respond well."

For example, on the practice field when the NFL's decision was announced, Lynch said he and Brooks sensed in some of the players some distraction about the postponement of Sunday's games and the uncertainty of the days to come. He said he felt obligated to speak out.

"Obviously, everyone was getting real distracted out there and we said, "Hey, let's finish what we're doing! We're out here, so let's finish,' " Lynch said. "And we did. I think there's going to have to be a lot of that."

Dungy said that type of leadership will play a crucial role in how the players handle the two-week break.

"The teams that have that, can stay focused, are the teams that will come through," Dungy said. "Any time you have a major distraction like a strike or work stoppage that gets you out of your routine for any reason, you have to be able to focus in and teams that do that well, you'll see it in their play. Teams that don't, I fear you'll see it too.

"We think we (have that leadership). I'm sure everyone thinks they do. But we'll find out. When your routine gets disrupted you find out what you're made of."

One benefit for the Bucs is that injured players have a chance to heal. For instance, receiver Keyshawn Johnson (thigh bruise) and center Jeff Christy (left knee sprain) likely will be fully recovered by Sept. 30.

As for those who are healthy?

"I'm going to continue to watch television," Dunn said. "We haven't played enough games to say, "Well, you let your body heal and you need rest.' So, it's going to be different but I think I'm just going to probably sit back and watch TV."

NOTES: Defensive end Marcus Jones was credited with a sack in the Dallas game after a review by the Elias Sports Bureau, compiler of the league's statistics.

On a play in the third quarter, Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter fumbled and recovered the ball in the Dallas backfield. Jones made the tackle.

The sack was the 22nd of Jones' career, moving him into a tie for eighth place with John Cannon on the Bucs' all-time list. His next sack will move him into a tie for seventh with Santana Dotson at 23.

- Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report.

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