Smooth sailing for Buccaneers Football: After years of ineptitude, Tampa Bay has become a team to be feared and a franchise to be respected.

August 20, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. -- In their 23rd season, the makeover of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers appears complete. They have replaced chaos with continuity, futility with success, and now, even long-standing apathy with renewed passion.

This summer, for the first time in his stewardship, general manager Rich McKay was confronted with a crisis of ticket availability and a throng of disgruntled fans. There wasn't nearly enough ticket supply to meet fan demand when the club sold out its first four home games in record time in early August.

"That's a good problem to have," said McKay. "I've been in the other place. Tickets and expectations are very nice problems to have."

It helps that the Bucs will open a gorgeous new 66,000-seat stadium next month. But this new-found crush for Bucs tickets can be attributed more accurately to the team's swift ascent from perennial doormat to Super Bowl contender.

While the transformation seems to have occurred overnight with the arrival in 1996 of coach Tony Dungy, it actually took root in 1994 when the Bucs made Trent Dilfer the sixth pick of the draft and the quarterback of an uncertain future.

Four years later, Dilfer is the cog upon which the 1998 season will turn. Such is his cast of complementary parts that if he can hit receivers Bert Emanuel and Anthony Reidel often enough downfield, the once woebegone Bucs can challenge for the NFC championship.

More specifically, if Dilfer's passing game can chase the Green Bay Packers out of their eight-man fronts geared to stop Tampa Bay's running game, the Bucs can finally beat the Packers after five straight losses.

"We need to make more plays in the passing game," Dilfer says when asked what it will take to topple the Packers. "Not necessarily a higher percentage or more yards, but we need to hit more third-and-10's for touchdowns. We need to capitalize on big plays, we need to be more opportunistic."

That is how far these Bucs have come. They have one of the NFL's most intimidating defenses, led by Pro Bowl tackle Warren Sapp. They have one of the most productive running games with Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. They have one of the best coaches in Dungy, and one of the most creative general managers in McKay.

They just need a viable passing game from Dilfer, whose franchise-record 21 touchdown throws last year were somewhat misleading.

"Trent was proficient on third down," McKay said. "But we didn't make very many big plays. By the end of the year, people did not treat the pass as much of a threat."

Even so, the Bucs tied a franchise-record with 11 wins last season, reached the playoffs for the first time in 15 years and won a postseason game for the first time in 18 years. In January, they lost their divisional playoff game to the Packers, 21-7.

The Bucs arrived at this juncture largely through McKay's draft-day deals and Dungy's masterful hand at developing one of the league's youngest teams.

Since McKay was appointed general manager of the team in November 1994, the Princeton graduate proved adept at draft-day wheeling and dealing. He positioned the Bucs with a league-high six first-round selections his first three drafts, netting bTC a total of nine starters.

This year, McKay traded his lone first-round pick for a pair of second-rounders and used them on wide receiver Jacquez Green of Florida and cornerback Brian Kelly of USC, two positions of need.

The trade-down has become a staple of McKay's draft tactics. Three times in four years he's done it and come away with the players he wanted, starting in 1995 when he wound up with Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks.

Sapp, projected as a top three pick that year, plummeted when reports surfaced of failed drug tests. The Bucs traded down from the seventh to the 12th pick and snagged him, even though speculation had them taking defensive end Mike Mamula.

"We focused on Warren from the beginning," said McKay, the son of John McKay, a Hall of Fame coach at USC and the Bucs' first coach. "We knew he was falling after the combine. We discussed a trade-down with a couple of teams, and had enough ammunition to get more picks. The trade-down has been good to us. You can fall in love with a player and end up taking him at a level he doesn't merit going."

The trade-down was big again in 1997 when the Bucs dropped from the eighth pick to the 12th and snared Dunn, an elusive scatback runner who was the NFL's offensive rookie of the year.

Dungy's input has given the Bucs a sharper focus. The new regime wanted to tap production, not promise, in the draft. That and high-character players became the keynote.

"Production and character were very important to me," Dungy said. "I learned that from Coach [Chuck] Noll. He had so much success at Pittsburgh doing that. Everyone feels that need, but as coach, you have to back that up. You've got to put substance behind it."

There's a lot of substance where Dungy comes from. After losing eight of his first nine games with the Bucs, he has won 16 of the last 25. One of his greatest strengths is his patience, and nowhere is it more evident than at quarterback.

Before Dungy was hired by new owner Malcolm Glazer, Dilfer had thrown five touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. Since then, Dilfer's touchdown-to-interception ratio is 33-30.

"When I got a six-year contract, Mr. Glazer said he didn't want me to feel like I had to win right away," Dungy said. "If he says, 'You have a three-year contract, we'll evaluate you right away,' I might have done things differently."

The patient approach resulted is a total remake of the Bucs. They are laughable losers no longer.

Pub Date: 8/20/98

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