`Shallow' Bucs eager to rewrite Philadelphia story

Deep thought about past is useless, Gruden says of spoiler role in Vet send-off

Nfl Playoffs

January 19, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ever touched down in Philadelphia for the big game, there was the mind game.

There were the Vet, the cold and the Eagles.

Those three elements could spell psychological - and possibly physical - ruin for the Bucs in today's NFC championship game at frigid Veterans Stadium. Then again, given the mind-set of Bucs coach Jon Gruden, maybe they won't.

It doesn't matter to Gruden that the Bucs have ended their previous two seasons with ugly playoff losses at the Vet. Or that they've lost four straight to the Eagles. Or that they are 1-21 in temperatures below 40 degrees.

They weren't his losses or his teams.

Mind games, anyone?

"If we sit around and are real deep, philosophical people, maybe you can let it get to you," he said last week. "But if you stay shallow and zoom in on the immediate future, we're both undefeated in the 2002 postseason. That's how I look at it."

The Bucs' first-year coach stayed shallow all week in an attempt to squash the demons that supposedly await him in Philadelphia. In his mind, his Bucs are 1-0 in temps colder than 40 degrees because they beat the Chicago Bears in Champaign, Ill., with the thermometer in the 30s last month. Today's temperatures are expected to be below freezing.

Gruden knows Veterans Stadium well. He used to live underground at the facility when he was offensive coordinator with the Eagles under Ray Rhodes from 1995 to 1997. This will be the final Eagles game ever at the Vet, but the building holds no special attraction or fear for the Bucs, they say.

"I don't really care if it's the Vet or the parking lot outside," Bucs wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "The bottom line is getting to the Super Bowl. I don't think we're sitting around concerning ourselves with the football atmosphere in Philadelphia. Like Coach said the other day ... `We're not going to Mars, we're going two hours away [by plane].' "

If the Bucs pull off the upset, they're going to San Diego, too, for the 37th Super Bowl. But to do that, they'll have to defeat the Eagles' blitzing defense. That job falls to quarterback Brad Johnson and the blockers in front of him.

Johnson, who had the best passer rating in the NFC this season but was not voted to the Pro Bowl team, has thrown five interceptions in his past two starts against the Eagles without generating a touchdown.

Discounting a meaningless regular-season finale against the Eagles a year ago in which he played only a series, Johnson is 3-3 in his career against Philadelphia with six touchdown passes and 11 interceptions.

He is familiar with the risks of facing the Eagles' furious pass rush.

"You have to attack them," Johnson said. "You have to respect them because they have done it year in and year out. ... But if you get scared of them, you are in for a long day. The biggest thing for me is to get the ball out of my hands."

The Bucs know the blitz is coming. They just don't know when or from where. The Eagles try to confuse and outnumber the blockers in an attempt to disrupt the passing game.

"Their scheme is unorthodox," Gruden said. "A lot of blitzing. Some [blitzes] are unorthodox and are really exclusive to the Philadelphia Eagles. I credit Jim Johnson. He's given a lot of offensive coaches, including myself, fits over the years.

"You must prepare for double corner blitzes, double safety blitzes, five-man blitzes, six-man blitzes, great disguises, a lot of movement before the ball is snapped. Just a lot of different looks."

The more an opponent has to worry about those blitzes, the better Johnson, the Eagles' defensive coordinator, likes it.

"We always say we want to put pressure - not only pressure physically, but mental pressure - on the offense, so they have to worry about us," he said. "That's still one of our main goals."

The Bucs have the best defense statistically in the league this season, but the Eagles have the most notorious. They are renowned for their blitz schemes, but they'll also drop into a conservative cover-two zone at times. They can pressure the quarterback with their front four alone.

"We're definitely real confident in what we do," said safety Brian Dawkins, one of three Pro Bowl defenders in the secondary. "I would think it's like a controlled chaos. We really go out and try to attack as much as possible. We try to confuse you a lot with disguises and moving around."

It was that attitude that helped the Eagles absorb the loss of quarterback Donovan McNabb to a broken ankle for the final six games of the regular season and still earn the top seed in the NFC. With McNabb back, they're making a second straight trip to the NFC championship game.

When the Eagles lost, 29-24, to the St. Louis Rams in last year's conference title game, McNabb stayed on the field to watch the trophy presentation.

"It definitely is extra incentive," he said. "That was pretty much the reason I went out to see the celebration in St. Louis. It was an emotional game for me, and you get so close and obviously we didn't win the game. But you visualize us getting back to that spot again and doing it at the Vet. ... It's been on my mind ever since the season started."

Today, it's time for the mind games to end.

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