For a change, Bucs building a winner NFL: Second-year coach Tony Dungy has used team speed to help Tampa Bay compile a 3-0 record that is the talk of the league.

September 21, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

For the second-youngest team in the NFL, these are milestones the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are passing these days, not millstones anymore.

Beat the San Francisco 49ers? Until Aug. 31, the Bucs hadn't done that since 1980, covering nine losses.

Win two consecutive road games in the same season? Before they won at Detroit and at Minnesota in the past two weeks, the Bucs hadn't accomplished that trick since 1989.

Start 3-0 and lead the NFC Central Division? The Bucs have to go back 18 years to match that kind of success.

Dubbed the Pewter Pirates for their new-look pewter pants, these Bucs break with all Tampa Bay tradition. They've got game-breakers on offense, run-stoppers on defense and a coach who sets the course with a calm, reassuring hand.

The Bucs may be the surprise of the NFL season so far, but they are no mirage. Not if Tony Dungy knows what he's doing, and the second-year coach gives every indication he knows exactly what he's doing.

"It's still early and we have the reputation of, 'They're still Tampa Bay, they'll fold up when they have injuries or whatever,' " Dungy said recently. "I don't think that's going to happen. Our team is starting to show character and a belief in ourselves."

The Bucs will play a "character" game tonight at sold-out Houlihan's Stadium against the Miami Dolphins. They haven't beaten the Dolphins since 1982 in what has been a tepid intrastate rivalry. Still, it's a sign of these rapidly changing times that Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer actually will be favored to beat Dolphins future Hall of Famer Dan Marino.

And won't that add a tasty little subplot to the nationally televised affair? When Jimmy Johnson juggled offers two years ago from the Dolphins and Bucs, he opted for Miami -- and Marino -- over the Bucs and Dilfer.

A wise choice then, it is open to review this season. Johnson reportedly is contemplating a change of quarterback for the struggling Marino. Meanwhile, Dilfer, the former No. 1 draft pick from Fresno State, quietly has ascended to the top among NFC quarterbacks with a passer rating 39 points higher than Marino in the AFC.

Miami's gain in Johnson really wasn't Tampa's loss, either. In his first 19 NFL games, Dungy has proved more than capable of building a winner. Off to a 1-8 start a year ago, Dungy has won eight of his past 10 games. He rebuilt the Bucs' defense a year ago, and after adding running back Warrick Dunn and wide receiver Reidel Anthony through the draft, he put the big play back in their moribund offense.

Knocking down barriers as he goes along -- he is the fourth African-American head coach of the NFL's modern era -- Dungy has the Bucs talking playoffs, and for once, no one is laughing.

"We think it's very realistic," general manager Rich McKay said of the playoff goal. "We've still got a long way to go. [But] we're a little more talented team than people give us credit for. The limitation we have is we're the second-youngest team in the league."

Dungy waited 15 years for this chance, earning a solid reputation a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh and Minnesota, and as a defensive backs coach in Kansas City. The Bucs show the influence of Chuck Noll from Dungy's formative coaching years.

They are second in the NFL in rushing (159.7 yards per game), and third defending the rush (65.3). Dunn has a pair of 100-yard rushing games, and Dilfer, who threw 34 interceptions in his first 26 NFL games, has yet to throw one this season in 84 attempts.

"That's the kind of football I grew up on, where you run and make people defend the run," Dungy said. "We hit passes when they were open. We protected. We controlled the clock running the ball. That's the style of offense I like."

It's the style of offense -- and coach -- that enticed veteran left tackle Paul Gruber to sign a three-year, $9.9 million contract last February to stay with the Bucs.

"I just liked the way Tony treated players," said Gruber, a 10-year veteran. "He treats them with a lot of respect, and expects a lot out of you. I liked the offensive system, too. I knew we had a good defense because it really came on at the end of last year."

McKay credits Dungy with keeping the nucleus of a defense that Sam Wyche had built in his four seasons as coach. That included defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks, both No. 1's in 1995 who have blossomed in 1997.

"What Tony did was allow us to keep players we had drafted and liked and improve from there," McKay said. "I've seen a lot of times coaches come in and within two years, everybody's gone, and they started anew."

The addition of Dunn and Anthony addressed the Bucs' most pressing need on an offense that ranked last in scoring (13.8 points a game) and 28th in total offense (99.3 yards) a year ago. The draft was speed-driven.

Despite his smallish size (5 feet 8, 178 pounds), Dunn has made the biggest impact with 268 rushing yards and a 5.6 average. The former Florida State star also returns punts (10.5 yards) and kickoffs (22.3).

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