By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 26, 2003

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SAN DIEGO – Whoever said Tampa Bay’s defense would score in Super Bowl XXXVII knew what they were talking about.

You can sum up this championship game as follows: Trying to pick the MVP of this game is near impossible. Which defensive player do you choose?

About five or six guys make a good case. Simeon Rice had two sacks. Dwight Smith ran back two picks for touchdowns. Dexter Jackson also had two picks. Defensive player of the year Derrick Brooks ran back a pick for a score. And former Patriot Greg Spires had a sack and was in Rich Gannon’s face all night long.

Simply stated, the Buccaneer defense cremated the Oakland Raider offense all night long. Except for one fourth quarter stretch where the Bucs showed some mercy and let the score get close, the pride of western Florida earned their first coronation as league champs in one of the more dominating defensive shows in quite some time. Harassing and bullying Gannon and his receivers all night long, the once-destitute Bucs ascended to the championship of the NFL with a 48-21 victory over the Raiders at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday.

For owner Malcolm Glazer, who isn’t one one-hundredth the public speaker Bob Kraft is, it was an evening of sweet vindication and high triumph, barely one year after one of the more embarrassing ordeals a pro sports owner ever had to endure. Foolishly firing Tony Dungy before getting Bill Parcells’ signature on a contract, Glazer mortgaged the team’s future on Jon Gruden to become the new head coach. Going against the new coach’s 2001 team in the Super Bowl helped greatly, but for the moment, Glazer scored a similar triumph with Gruden as his coach as Kraft did by handing over draft picks for Bill Belichick.

It is rather ironic in that an offensive guru was what put Tampa Bay over the top, especially given that the Buccaneers became world champs thanks to the incredible play by the defense. It could be said that Gruden gave the Bucs just enough offensive impetus which was able to carry them all the way to a Vince, whereas in other years there wasn’t enough offense to defeat even Cincinnati.

Making things even more ironic was that Brad Johnson, the latest quarterback to try and bring back memories of Doug Williams, had a rather lousy evening. Johnson finished with a rating of 79.9 on 18 of 34 passing for 215 yards and two touchdowns. In the first half, Johnson looked scared and uncomfortable, with footwork that looked like Gilbert Brown trying to dance ballet. The real offensive star for Tampa Bay was Michael Pittman, who rushed for 124 yards on 29 carries.

All this aside, the defense carried the evening for the Buccaneers. Gannon’s five interceptions set a Super Bowl record. His passer rating was only 48.9 despite two touchdown passes, both of them of the long variety. He was rushed all night long, was sacked five times, and never got into a rhythm until things were out of hand in the fourth quarter. Disrupting Gannon all evening long proved to be the real key of the game for the champion Bucs.

Jackson did win MVP honors (the seventh defender to win such honors in Super Bowl history), based upon his two picks in the first half. Those two picks helped establish an early lead which grew to a margin which has never been overcome in Super Bowl history. Late in the first quarter, Spires rushed Gannon into a rollout to the right, and Gannon hurried a throw to Doug Jolley. Jackson stepped in front of Jolley and returned it nine yards to the Bucs’ 49. On the next Raider possession, Gannon looked for Joey Porter in a zone seam and did not see Jackson, who made the pick at his own 30 and returned it 25 yards.

The MVP voting was done with about 2 minutes to go in the game. Inside those two minutes, Tampa Bay ran back two picks for scores. Midway through the third quarter, with the Raiders at their own 40, Gannon looked for Jerry Rice in the right flat on second and 2. He threw a foolish pass which Smith caught on a dead run and ran it back 44 yards for a score. On the game’s final offensive play, Smith got his second interception return for a score when he stepped in front of Marcus Knight in the right flat and returned a tipped pass 50 yards for the exclamation point. Smith had matched Jackson on picks and had returned both for scores, but Jackson already had his MVP.

As if Smith really cares.

Brooks had the other interception return for a touchdown, as he stepped in front of Knight on a crossing pattern and raced 44 yards for a score. This pick put what had suddenly become a close game on ice, even though the Bucs were never seriously threatened once they had built a 34-9 lead.

It wasn’t just the defensive intensity by Tampa Bay that won them the championship. Until the fourth quarter, Oakland showed virtually no emotion whatsoever. After falling behind in the first half, 20-3, it became clear that Oakland’s gas tank was empty just prior to halftime. One has to wonder if Oakland was so confident that they would win the game and have an easy time with Tampa Bay that they brought absolutely no hatred or emotion to the table. They simply figured that the number one offense in the league would go out and do their stuff, never mind what Tampa Bay might bring to the table.

Oakland may have been victimized by a sidebar which most every Raider denies was a problem. Several hours prior to game time, word broke that Raider head coach Bill Callahan sent center Barret Robbins home for disciplinary reasons. Late word broke that both Robbins and his wife checked into a San Diego hospital for undisclosed reasons.

This conjured memories of Cincinnati’s Stanley Wilson (XXIII) and Atlanta’s Eugene Robinson (XXXIII) and their problems in proximity to game time. The players claim that Robbins missing was no problem, given that backup center Adam Treu was the starter for most of last year. Still, without Robbins there to anchor the center of the Raider offensive line, Sapp and Spires caused plenty of disruption in the Raider backfield.

Whatever the reason, the Raiders could not come close to matching the Buccaneer intensity for most of the first three quarters. It was 34-9 going into the final period, and what soon transpired for the Raiders turned out to be inconsequential.

The Raiders scored three touchdowns in the span of 8:20 to pull to within 34-21 and make things only slightly uncomfortable for Bucs Nation. Porter hauled in a neat 39-yard scoring toss from Gannon, barely keeping his toenails in bounds at the back of the end zone. On the ensuing drive, Tim Johnson blocked a Tom Tupa punt, and Eric Johnson ran it in from 13 yards out. When the Raiders got the ball back, Gannon made the Bucs pay for playing the "prevent nothing" soft zone by hitting Rice with a picture-perfect 48-yard scoring toss.

But on all three touchdowns, Callahan went for two point conversions and missed all of them. The final attempt drew controversy, as Brooks appeared to push Porter out of bounds as he made the catch. But back judge Don Carey adamantly ruled out of bounds, and replay showed that Porter was leaning towards the end line and likely would have come down out of bounds had Porter not pushed him.

It wasn’t all that long ago that New England won at Tampa Bay, 31-14 on the final regular season game of 1976, giving the Bucs a perfect 0-14 maiden voyage. They would lose their first 26 games before finally winning at New Orleans on Week 13 of 1977. They would endure some horrid years in the 1980s and 1990s.

But the Bucs are finally world champs. It began with Tony Dungy and pewter, and it ended with Gruden and a ton of picks. Somewhere up in football Heaven, John McKay is re-thinking his decision to want to execute the entire Buccaneer offense.

The Patriots are no longer champs. But at least Patriot Nation won’t have to listen to Raider fans and hear them brag about “If (Walt) Coleman hadn’t ruined things for us, we’d be two time champs!” In some else’s moment of high triumph, there is some solace for the northeast corner of the USA.

The last three Super Bowls have taught us all one thing. Be it the Ravens, the Patriots or the Buccaneers, one common element ties all three Super Bowl champs together: defense.

Why cultivate an offense when you score 21 points on interceptions? Simple as that.


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