If history is any guide, Bucs encore unlikely

ON THE NFL

Pro Football

February 02, 2003|By Ken Murray

It is tempting to think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a reasonable shot at repeating as Super Bowl champions next season.

They have a decent salary cap situation. They have a dynamic young coach, Jon Gruden, who is just scratching the surface with his new offense. And they outscored their three postseason opponents by a combined 106-37.

That was domination.

But even if the Bucs are able to keep safety Dexter Jackson, middle linebacker Shelton Quarles and left tackle Roman Oben - all free agents-to-be - and even if they come back with the same intensity, things have a way of working against defending Super Bowl champs.

Just ask the St. Louis Rams, the Ravens or the New England Patriots, the previous three champs. None made it to the conference championship game the following season, and the Rams and Ravens were considered to be dominant teams.

What could keep the Bucs out next season?

It could be injuries. Eight defensive starters started all 16 games this season and a ninth started 15. That's good fortune. Can it happen again?

It could be age catching up with key players. The Bucs have a lot of players in their prime, especially on defense, where the average age of their starting Super Bowl lineup was 28.2 years. Safety John Lynch and Quarles - if he returns - will be 32. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp will be 31, and linebacker Derrick Brooks 30. The youngest player on defense was Jackson, at 25, and the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player might not be back.

It could be offense. Quarterback Brad Johnson will be 35 and both of his backups, Rob Johnson and Shaun King, will be free agents. Oben would be a key loss, especially since the Bucs don't have a first- or second-round pick this year (part of the price to get Gruden from Oakland).

The day after the Super Bowl, Gruden stressed that his offense will get better. "I think our three playoff games clearly showed that we're on the right track," he said. "What kind of offense we're going to become? We're never going to be a team that throws it on every play. Our goal is not to lead the NFL in total yardage - it's to win Super Bowls and win games."

Winning back-to-back Super Bowls has been accomplished only seven times in the 37-year history of the game. It is worth noting that the seven quarterbacks who accomplished it are in the Hall of Fame or on their way - Denver's John Elway, Dallas' Troy Aikman, San Francisco's Joe Montana, Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw twice, Miami's Bob Griese and Green Bay's Bart Starr.

That's Brad Johnson's challenge.

Storm warning

As if it weren't bad enough that the Bucs' Super Bowl victory validated his firing a year ago, Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy was ripped last week by his kicker, Mike Vanderjagt. In comments made to a Canadian cable TV network, Vanderjagt said Dungy's laid-back style doesn't work in the NFL, and he also questioned quarterback Peyton Manning's leadership.

"I don't see us getting better," Vanderjagt said, alluding to Manning's 0-3 playoff record.

Vanderjagt subsequently apologized, saying he spoke out of frustration - three weeks after a 41-0 loss to the New York Jets. But the damage had been done.

Dungy said the issue wasn't the kicker's criticism, but Vanderjagt's commitment to Dungy's philosophy. The two spoke only 10 minutes. "The bottom line is, we'll see what happens," Dungy said.

Arizona's call

The Arizona Cardinals have a tough call to make on Jake Plummer, whose contract expires Feb. 27 and who will be the most coveted quarterback once free agency begins the next day. The Denver Broncos have targeted Plummer as their successor to Brian Griese. Also, it's believed new Cowboys coach Bill Parcells would like to sign him.

The Cardinals could put their franchise tag on Plummer and pay him $7.4 million for the 2003 season, the average salary of the top five quarterbacks in the league. But indications are they will let Plummer leave and play second-year quarterback Josh McCown, a third-round pick in 2002.

Two-minute drill

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