By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000
PONTIAC, Mich. -- They're among America's hottest sports topics, along with Tiger Woods, the Sydney Olympics, Bob Knight and the throbbing, escalating ABC Monday Night Football flop of cerebral but miscast comic Dennis Miller.
Bucs, so bullish.
It is status most desired, yet terribly fragile. High jock society. Massively visible. Adored, in the now, by ESPN, ABC, CBS, Fox, SI and other initials of exposure clout. It's a sweet beast, but with extreme demands. You're expected to be good, constantly.
Tampa Bay craved it, through a demeaning generation of crummy NFL seasons. How puffed our 2000 community chest. NFC Central champ. Super Bowl XXXV contender. Dominating defense. Offense with new juices. Pewter-pretty uniforms. A coach near-universally admired.
Understand the trap doors.
Flying high in the pro football stratosphere, you're open to deeper scrutiny. More spirited exams for franchise hearts and competitive minds. We've seen the nasty tumbles by San Francisco and Dallas, plus this season's developing Green Bay travails, due mostly to exotic and eventually penal NFL economics.
Washington has chosen to wear its salary cap backward. Stuffing colossal stacks of greenbacks, giving colossal signing bonuses. Jacksonville, you hear, had better win its Super Bowl this season or next, because the Jaguars are doomed to ghastly implosion. Rumor is, $29-million beyond cap boundaries due to contractual manipulations.
Tampa Bay is aware. Working at minimizing any plunge to come. Employing a tamer fiscal mentality. An approach to the NFL personnel crapshoot that is closer to Reaganomics than to Jacksonville's spend-now, pay-the-piper-later gig or the flashy, expensive Redskins ownership moves by Diamond Danny Snyder.
"It's inevitable that you will lose veteran talents," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "Hard decisions must be made, even if you choose a more conservative approach.
"You try to spend money as wisely as possible. Working to keep the guys you least want to lose. Almost certainly having to do things that will be unpopular with fans and media."
In recent days, Tampa Bay signed safety John Lynch for $4.8-million a season. An important, vastly popular member of a defensive unit considered akin to sacred by patrons at Raymond James Stadium.
I mean, if that matters.
So, we wonder, who'll be the next studly staple to be secured for the Bucs' long run? Likewise, who might copy the Tampa Bay exit of linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who saw McKay's offer as too cash-light and opted to jump to the Jags?
Assess, then place bets.
McKay lifted one of the many yellow legal pads on his desk. Rich checked 2000 starters whose contracts are up after this season. Then the general manager looked further ahead, to see how many years are now secured among 11 defensive regulars and 11 on offense, plus two kickers.
Five of those two dozen, if not resigned, will become unrestricted free agents after this season. Liable for offers from 30 other NFL teams for 2001. They are defensive end Marcus Jones, cornerback Ronde Barber, free safety Damien Robinson and the right side of Tampa Bay's offensive line, guard Frank Middleton and tackle Jerry Wunsch.
Far more heavy weaponry are eligible to become UFAs after the 2001 season, among them tailback Warrick Dunn, wide receiver Jacquez Green, offensive tackle Pete Pierson, linebacker Jamie Duncan and defensive end Steve White.
"Maybe the best example of keeping a harness on the salary cap, losing some big-name veteran players, but remaining competitive," McKay said, "is the Buffalo Bills." A fraternal general manager hurrah for his opposite number, John Butler.
"You decide a course of action," McKay said. "Today's cap is about $62.2-million. We're more than a million under that; something we plan to maintain. An absolute key to succeeding is to draft effectively enough to have reasonable replacements for veterans you lose."
San Francisco, rather than incur public/media wrath, chose in the mid-'90s to re-sign some declining stars. Not only quarterback Steve Young and receiver Jerry Rice, but linebacker Ken Norton and safety Tim McDonald.
It paid off, in the short run. There came a fifth Super Bowl championship for the 49ers, but since then the great ship has gone belly up. Salary cap squashed. Lousy drafts. Today, after all its glory, San Francisco is among the NFL's weakest teams.
Really, salary cap management is like handling a credit card. Tampa Bay choose to keep up with its bills, seldom shopping for a Rolls-Royce, except in the case of Keyshawn Johnson.
Meanwhile, the 49ers, Cowboys, Redskins, Jags and others have stacked heavy, long-term debts. Manipulating the cap with huge signing bonuses that, for cap purposes, are pro-rated over a number of seasons.
Eventually, it catches up with the Diamond Dannys and Jerry Joneses. Delayed debts amass and haunt. Unless a team drafts especially well, there is no hope of avoiding a terrible dive. Being truly powerful and keeping your NFL act totally intact is now impossible.
In the past 12 months, the Bucs have lost four starters. They gave up on quarterback Trent Dilfer, now a Baltimore Ravens backup. Paul Gruber was injured and declining at offensive tackle and eventually decided to retire.
McKay, coach Tony Dungy and other decisionmakers at One Buccaneer Place decided second-year pro Booger McFarland was so adept at defensive tackle that popular old pro Brad Culpepper could be dispensed, to wind up playing for Chicago.
Nickerson left, too. Change is certain. It's how you manage it, involving both human beings and the salary cap. "Our hope is to not just have a brief window of opportunity," McKay said, meaning being a championship contender. "We work at trying to keep good, young backups coming along, so hopefully they will take over with efficiency when we lose a veteran.
"I have some personal rules that I consider unbendable. I will never trade a future No. 1 draft choice. We do no contract renegotiations to create salary cap room. Every team makes its choices. It is similar to managing a credit card."
The starting lineup of the Bucs with position, player and last year under contract:
Position/Player-Last year under contract
DE/Marcus Jones -2000
DT/Warren Sapp -2003
DT/Anthony McFarland -2003
DE/Chidi Ahanotu -2004
LB/Derrick Brooks -2002
LB/Jamie Duncan -2001
LB/Shelton Quarles -2002
CB/Donnie Abraham -2002
CB/Ronde Barber -2000
SS/John Lynch -- 2005
FS/Damien Robinson -2000
P/Mark Royals -2002
Position/Player-Last year under contract
WR/Keyshawn Johnson -2007
LT/Pete Pierson -2001
LG/Randall McDaniel -2002
C/Jeff Christy -2004
RG/Frank Middleton -2000
RT/Jerry Wunsch -2000
WR/Jacquez Green -2001
TE/Dave Moore -2002
QB/Shaun King -- 2002
RB/Mike Alstott -2003
RB/Warrick Dunn -2001
K/Martin Gramatica -- 2002