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Homely yes, but a keeper

By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2001


CINCINNATI -- As victories go, this one had a pimple on its nose.

CINCINNATI -- As victories go, this one had a pimple on its nose.

It had big ears and missing teeth and, frankly, it could stand to lose some weight. It had mismatched eyes and a single brow and, to be blunt, it had a problem with perspiration.

Yep, this win sure was ugly.

So go ahead. Complain if you want. Certainly, there were enough scars and warts and blemishes to go around in the Bucs' 16-13 overtime victory against the Bengals. Also, there was dandruff.

Understand this, however.

Woofer that it was, flawed as it may have been, the Bucs will resist temptation to give it back.

Oh, today's forecast across the Tampa Bay area is for widespread griping. That's what happens when a team wins in a manner this unsightly. The Bucs took what should have been a 10-point victory, and they turned it into a nail-biter. It happened at Dallas, and at Detroit, and at Cincinnati. Let's face it. This team goes ugly often.

It was, on the other hand, victory.

And who are we to sneer because a victory isn't pretty enough? Shallow Hal?

For the first time in a very long time, the Bucs have a winning record, and a winning streak, and a reason to hope. You're going to ignore that because this wasn't a classic? You're going to grumble the week away because it wasn't a beauty?

Come on. This is the NFL. Half the teams win, and more than half of those win ugly. It's an uphill struggle for a league in which no one seems capable of putting anyone away, in which one team usually staggers to the finish line a half-step ahead of the other. It doesn't matter how much of an eyesore a game might be, the winning coach will write sonnets to it.

"This was one of those games that looks like it was scarred from coming out of a car accident," coach Tony Dungy said, grinning. "But it's not a beauty contest. It's a football game.

"People will talk about it for a while. But after three weeks, it's forgotten, and it's just W's and L's. I don't know how many games like this the ')72 Dolphins won. I just know they were 17-0."

Yes, it is hard not expect more from the Bucs than this. Heck, the players expect more. If you think this was frustrating to watch, try it through the eyes of Keyshawn Johnson, who grumbled afterward about the offense's lack of aggression. And yes, there are times the Bucs seem as determined to keep the other team in the game as themselves.

Still, there are better weeks to vent. The Bucs weren't pretty. On the other hand, 6-5 is as good as they've looked in some time.

How ugly were they? Let us count the blotches.

At one point, quarterback Brad Johnson had a franchise-record tying 14 consecutive completions. Yet the offense failed to score a touchdown.

On one drive, the Bucs kept the ball for 17 plays. They did not score.

For the most part, the defense played well. Still, the Bengals came from 10 points behind to force overtime.

The Bucs offense ran 36 plays inside Bengals territory, yet settled for three field goals.

Warren Sapp was about to pick up a fumble and waltz into the end zone for a touchdown. A diving Anthony McFarland knocked the ball from his hands.

How ugly was it? This one was Princess Fiona after dark. It was the Carrot Top family reunion. It was the duck-billed platypus that doesn't get asked to the prom. It was flat and flawed and frustrating.

Give the Bucs credit for this. They know it wasn't a work of art.

"It was like it fell out of the ugly tree and hit every limb on the way down," is the way Sapp put it. "And when it landed, it hit a root. We're talking about a big nose and buck eyes and Jheri-curl."

John Lynch: "This game definitely needs to go to the dentist. It was a game that looked pretty good early, then it gained some weight. But by the end, it looked good again."

That said, Bucs' history is filled with games like this. This is how winning looks. The Bucs have never won sufficiently enough, or proficiently enough, to be allowed to complain about it when it comes.

"Look, this is the same score that we beat Miami by last year, and that was considered one of the biggest victories we've ever had," Sapp said. "That's the way I'm going to look at this."

Perhaps that's the way the rest of us should look at it, too. The statistics say 12 percent of teams win on the road the week after a Monday night game. The Bucs did that. In a certain light, that looks attractive enough.

Granted, the Bucs will have to play better down the stretch. They do need a puncher's attitude on offense. They need to finish drives. They need to close the door on the offense.

But remember this. At its worst, winning is prettier than losing.

In the end, it doesn't matter how ugly the victory is. It's whether you get to bring it home at closing time.

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