It's not too early to single out the Bucs as the team that could
win it all
As the final seconds ticked off the Silverdome scoreboard,
Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp paused on the sideline to
consider the destruction his team had wrought in a 31-10 win over
the Lions. "One bad play in 60 minutes," he said. "Not bad. But
we ain't done yet, baby. We'll be better."
That's a scary thought for the rest of the NFL, but he's right.
The Tampa Bay defense is intimidating and has depth; we expected
that. The offense is developing into a better-than-average group;
we didn't expect that, certainly not this early on.
Three weeks into the season it's clear that the defending Super
Bowl champion Rams have serious shortcomings on defense, and
every AFC contender is flawed. So here are seven reasons why
Tampa Bay will win it all.
1. The Defense Never Rests. The Bucs conjure up memories of the
Reggie White-Jerome Brown-led Eagles defense of the late '80s and
early '90s, but this team is deeper. It is a Tasmanian devil of a
unit, and on Sunday it had seven sacks, 12 quarterback pressures,
two interceptions, five pass deflections and two forced fumbles,
all while holding the Lions to 17 yards rushing. Every week
there's a new hero. Linebacker Derrick Brooks was the man in Week
1, cornerback Ronde Barber in Week 2 and Sapp (three sacks) and
fellow defensive tackle Anthony (Booger) McFarland (2 1/2 sacks)
in the Detroit game. The emergence of McFarland, a 1999
first-round draft pick out of LSU, led to the Bucs' waiving Brad
Culpepper, a fan favorite and a buddy of Sapp's. With Tampa Bay
sitting on a 24-10 lead, McFarland and defensive end Chidi
Ahanotu combined on a sack that knocked the Lions out of field
goal range. "He plays so much like me," Sapp says of McFarland,
"that sometimes when we're watching film, I get the two of us
2. The Intimidation Factor. Fourth quarter, Detroit still
trailing by 14 with the ball at its 42. Charlie Batch passes 31
yards up the right seam for tight end David Sloan, who, with free
safety Damien Robinson closing fast, pulls up short of the ball
instead. "We try to hit receivers so hard early that they grow
alligator arms," Robinson said later. Strong safety John Lynch
intercepts the pass and returns it 36 yards, setting up the Bucs'
3. The Offense Has Some Teeth. In 12 quarters Tampa Bay has
scored 93 points--and quarterback Shaun King has no turnovers.
There's a direct correlation there. Occasionally King will pass
up an open man 20 yards downfield for a shorter, safer throw or a
run, but what do you expect from a player who has made only 10
NFL starts? He's beginning to find new star wideout Keyshawn
Johnson (eight catches for 84 yards on Sunday), which, in turn,
opens up the running game. In their first three outings the Bucs
have rushed for seven touchdowns, equaling their total for all
last season. The maturation of wideouts Reidel Anthony and
Jacquez Green, meanwhile, gives the Bucs' passing attack more
depth than it has ever had.
4. A Leader in the Huddle--at Last. Midway through the third
quarter Tampa Bay was stalled at the Lions' one-yard line, having
failed to score on six plays (thanks to a penalty) inside the
five. King stepped into the huddle on fourth down and lit into
his teammates for not imposing their will on the Lions. The Bucs
scored on the next play, but the touchdown was called back
because of an illegal substitution. Tampa Bay settled for a field
goal, but King had made his point. One teammate says King in his
second season commands more respect in the huddle than the
departed Trent Dilfer did in his sixth. "I won't berate them,"
King says of his teammates, "but we respect each other. They know
what a quarterback has to do sometimes."
5. The Dungy Factor. No team respects its coach more than the
Bucs respect Tony Dungy. "I owe the man everything," Sapp, the
league's defensive player of the year in '99, says of his success
under Dungy. Talk about an open-door policy: When the Bucs
released Culpepper on Aug. 21, Sapp went to Dungy's home--the two
live in the same neighborhood--knocked on his door and demanded an
explanation for the roster move. Dungy invited him in and
explained the reasoning behind the move; Sapp still wasn't happy,
but he got a straight answer. Dungy, in his understated way,
doesn't duck anything.
6. The Front Office Has a Plan. "The window-of-opportunity
theory, about having a short time to win in the NFL today, is a
myth," says Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay. "In the
salary-cap era, you can't worry about the next three months; you
have to worry about the next three years. Every year you have to
rely on your coaches to develop and play unproven players." So
when Culpepper was released and middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson
jumped to the Jaguars in free agency, McFarland and third-year
man Jamie Duncan moved into those vacancies seamlessly.
7. Keyshawn's Arrival. It was good for the team that Johnson had
a big afternoon on Sunday. He was a nonfactor the first two
weeks--only six receptions total--and though he wasn't bitching
about being underused, his teammates were. "We didn't pay
Keyshawn $56 million to be some damn decoy," Sapp said the night
before the game against Detroit. "We've got to start getting him
the ball." On Sunday, 10 of King's 30 attempts went Johnson's
"I'm not going to complain about numbers," Johnson, looking like
a million bucks, said after the game. "All I care about is
winning a Super Bowl--this year."
Tiki Barber's Emergence
Grass Fuels Top Rusher's Run
No one was happier to see the artificial turf ripped from the
floor of Giants Stadium this year than running back Tiki Barber.
"There's no question I'm a better player on grass," says Barber,
the league's surprising rushing leader after three weeks, with
326 yards on only 41 carries. "I'm just really apprehensive on
the turf. I'm more cautious. On grass I feel I can let my
abilities come out more. I'm confident. I'm comfortable."
Fear of injury, Barber says, has made him a tentative player on
artificial turf. Since the start of the 1999 season he has
averaged 6.8 yards per carry on grass and 4.9 yards on turf. On
Sept. 3 he exploded out of the gate on Giants Stadium's new
surface for 144 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries in a 21-16
victory over the Cardinals. He was back on the grass on Sunday,
picking up 86 yards on 17 carries and scoring a touchdown in a
14-7 win over the Bears at Soldier Field as the Giants ran their
record to 3-0 for the first time since 1994. In three games he
has already rushed for more yards than he did in each of the last
two seasons, and 10 of his team's 13 remaining games are on
The new surface on his home field isn't the only reason that
Barber, a second-round draft choice out of Virginia in 1997, has
been better. He felt too heavy last season at 205 pounds, so
during the off-season he dropped 14 pounds by repeatedly running
2 1/2 miles up and down a hillside in northern New Jersey. Giants
fullback Greg Comella, who learned the hill regimen while at
Stanford from training freak Jerry Rice, introduced Barber to it.
"I have to thank Jerry Rice," says Barber, "because running that
hill taught me to push my body to the max, then beyond." All the
way to the top of the NFL rushing charts.
Chiefs' Grbac Finds a Weapon
On Sunday, Chiefs quarterback Elvis Grbac threw a first-quarter
interception that Chargers safety Michael Dumas returned for a
score. Grbac also twisted his right knee on the play and limped
off the field to a chorus of boos. Then, in a stunning
turnaround, he rebounded to have the most productive day by a
Kansas City signal-caller since 1966.
Grbac has been unspectacular, to put it mildly, in recent
seasons. Going into the San Diego game, he had thrown almost as
many interceptions (34) as touchdown passes (41) since he joined
the Chiefs in 1997. But with rookie first-round pick Sylvester
Morris getting separation from a good San Diego secondary, Grbac
found the deep threat he has been lacking. He threw touchdown
passes of 36, nine and 20 yards to Morris, and a total of five on
the day--the most since Len Dawson shredded the Boston Patriots
for five scores--in a 42-10 Kansas City rout.
"That's the kind of toughness you need to play quarterback,"
Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham said. "Elvis found another weapon
in Sylvester Morris, and I think that's going to make everything
else in our offense better."
The End Zone
On His Own Island
Told that a participant in the CBS series Survivor was at the
team's practice facility last week, Rams coach Mike Martz said,
"I have no idea what Survivor is."
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER With Mike Alstott running for the tough yards inside, Tampa Bay's rushing attack is in good hands.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Barber claims he's a better runner on grass than on turf, and he has backed that up so far.
Packers quarterback Brett Favre's advice to struggling Eagles
counterpart Donovan McNabb: "You'll have one great game, then an
average game. A great game, then a bad game, then five average
games. You will wonder if you're a flash in the pan. You never
totally master the game. Keep working." McNabb had one of those
so-so games against the Packers on Sunday, completing 15 of 31
passes for 118 yards with an interception in a 6-3 loss....
As for the Packers, they are being done in by two tackles, Mike
Wahle and Mark Tauscher, who have 17 career starts between them.
Eagles defensive ends Hugh Douglas and Mike Mamula feasted on
them. Philly racked up five sacks and held the Pack to 236
The biggest player in the NFL, 380-pound Lions right tackle
Aaron Gibson, probably won't be the biggest player in his family
for long. His 15-year-old brother, Adam, is a 360-pound tackle
for Bloomington (Ind.) North High....
Here's one reason that the Jets love running back Curtis Martin:
He has a streak of 437 carries and 492 offensive touches without
losing a fumble....
The strangest statement of Week 3--and perhaps the most
revealing--came from safety Lawyer Milloy of the 0-3 Patriots,
speaking to the media who were trying to figure out the mood in
the New England locker room: "You guys can't possibly understand
what's going on in here, because a lot of times we don't know
what's going on in here."