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Original Issue

Futures Market A return to the Super Bowl is more likely for the Bucs than for the Raiders

For Tampa Bay and Oakland, the key numbers in looking ahead to
next season are 31 and $45.4 million, respectively. The
Buccaneers do not have a defensive starter older than 31, and the
Raiders are $45.4 million over the projected 2003 salary cap of
$73.9 million.

Oakland could trim its payroll by releasing nonessential veterans
such as defensive linemen Darrell Russell and Sam Adams,
cornerback Tory James and running back Terry Kirby--a savings of
up to $30 million, depending on when those players were cut. Left
tackle Barry Sims, who showed how vulnerable he is to speed
rushers when Simeon Rice whipped him on Sunday, will likely be
kept, but he counts $5.13 million against the cap next season and
might be one of perhaps 20 veterans asked to restructure their
contracts to help the team remain competitive. The good news for
Oakland is that it has only two free agents important enough to
re-sign: guard Mo Collins and punter Shane Lechler.

But the payroll isn't the only concern for the Raiders, who also
often had the oldest starting lineup in the league (average age:
29 1/2). With two first-and one second-round picks in the April
draft, they need an influx of young talent, though they would
also need additional room under the cap to pay those players.

As for Tampa Bay, the team's biggest worry may be hubris. Like
his two most outspoken and high-profile players, defensive tackle
Warren Sapp and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, coach Jon Gruden
never shies away from an endorsement or a moment in the
spotlight. Also, there's no telling how post--Super Bowl
attention will be handled by young players such as MVP free
safety Dexter Jackson, 25, and cornerback Dwight Smith, 24. On
the field the Bucs seem woefully unprepared to survive a serious
injury to quarterback Brad Johnson, who will be 35 in September
and has a history of brittleness. Expect Gruden to find an
experienced backup quarterback on the free-agent market.

Gruden, the winner of 55 games and a Super Bowl before turning
40, is the most driven coach in the game, and it's hard to
imagine that he'll slack off. As long as the defensive keystones
stay healthy and hungry, the Bucs should stay atop one of the
toughest divisions in football. "We've got to keep winning," Sapp
said after Sunday's game, "to be one of the great defenses of all

Easier said than done. In the 10 seasons since the salary cap was
instituted, only one team--the Denver Broncos--has won
back-to-back Super Bowls (1998 and '99). In the four seasons
after winning the second title, Denver has gone to the playoffs
once and is three games over .500. Uneasy lies the crown.--P.K.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER (GRUDEN) RINGLEADER Though he was coaching against old pals, Gruden didn't hide his glee as the Bucs delivered each crushing blow.