Kids on dirt fields draw offensive plays with their fingers better than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You wonder how long the best defense in football can stand to stay in this marriage; you wonder how long Warren Sapp and his boys can smile and say kind things about the offense after playing their hearts out and losing. The Buccaneers' defense didn't pitch a shutout, so Tampa Bay is not going to the Super Bowl. That's what the defense has to do virtually every week: be perfect or very close to it. Don't let a cornerback fall, or a blitzer not get to the quarterback, or a linebacker miss a tackle. Be perfect or else.
The St. Louis Rams average 33 points a game. They scored 11 Sunday, including two points on a safety allowed when the center snapped the ball over the quarterback's head. Not good enough. One little bit of offense would have reversed the outcome. Any offense at all for Tampa Bay, and the Buccaneers, once symbolic of losing in America, would have been making a trip to the Super Bowl. One measly touchdown. Two field goals. Anything. One imaginative play at the proper time would have led to one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.
A week of incomparable arrogance and a Tampa Bay defense that threw haymakers and body shots all day nearly caught up with the St. Louis Rams. After breaking into a cold sweat, the Rams are going to the Super Bowl because Kurt Warner pulled himself together long enough to make one big throw, and because the Buccaneers' offensive coaches have yet to discover the forward pass.
"I would have guessed we'd have been in the twenties," Rams Coach Dick Vermeil said, stunned at seeing his warp-speed offense slowed to a waltz. "We got trapped in their kind of game and couldn't get out of there."
Told of Vermeil's comment, Sapp said of his defense, "We can turn a ballerina into a breakdancer."
They could probably make the grayest sky blue, or even make it rain whenever they want it to. But they can't make a first down on third and inches, or kick a field goal after a turnover, or call a play that would protect their rookie quarterback. So the NFC championship game boiled down to this: Tampa Bay's defense vs. the Rams' cockiness.
The Rams came ever so close to getting trapped in believing their hype, which did them nearly as much damage as Tampa's defense. I can't remember the last time a team talked as much junk and acted as arrogantly the week of a championship game. Okay, maybe the 1985 Bears--but by the time they got to the NFC championship game, teams were afraid of them.
These Rams apparently thought the Buccaneers were afraid of them. The Rams treated Sunday's game like a forgone conclusion, a warmup act for Super Bowl XXXIV. They were probably more nervous before the first passing drill in summer camp than they were before meeting the Buccaneers. NFL employees were saying before the game that they'd never seen a team take a championship for granted quite like the Rams were doing all week.
And you know who set the tone for the week of arrogance? That old smack-talker himself, Dick Vermeil. After whipping up on the Vikings a week ago, Vermeil said very confidently that his team appeared to have no "glaring weaknesses." It was a reasonable assessment given what the Rams had done all season, and to the Vikings.
But it was a little surprising Vermeil would go that far considering how conservative a man and coach he has been all his life. What signal would his players pick up from that--that all's well, that everything's in the bag? Of course, by midweek the word "glaring" had been dropped in the re-telling of the story and the Bucs became convinced Vermeil had said his team had "no weaknesses."
Even if Vermeil had been misquoted, many of his players weren't. Isaac Bruce led the way, saying among other things that Pro Bowl safety John Lynch couldn't cover the Rams' receivers one-on-one. The Rams' offensive players intimated or said outright that Tampa Bay didn't have enough defense to stop this new 21st century offense they had used to run past so many teams this season.
The dumbest thing you can do in sports is publicly dismiss an opponent, which is exactly what the Rams did no matter how they tried to spin it afterward. Vermeil went to great lengths afterward to say there would be no celebrating between now and Sunday's game against Tennessee. And he quietly added, "I feel fortunate to have won the football game. . . . I feel bad for Tony Dungy."
I do too. He's one of the most honorable and humble men I've gotten to know in 20 years of covering sports. He reminds me and a lot of longtime NFL insiders of Tom Landry and Dungy's mentor, Chuck Noll. But unless Dungy does something he is reluctant to do--fire offensive coordinator Mike Shula--his team will stay right where it is now. That is, just short of championship caliber.
Without question, Tampa's defense is its strength. But the Buccaneers have serviceable offensive players at running back, wide receiver and tight end. The line holds up well year after year. Quarterback Shaun King is a rookie, but he's talented and calm of demeanor. Yet, Shula plays as if the cupboard is bare, as if he has nothing. He's a Monday morning quarterback's fantasy because every week it seems double-digit calls make no sense whatsoever, even to former NFL players and coaches. Against a fierce St. Louis pass rush, Shula didn't run one screen pass, didn't call one quarterback draw even though he has a young quarterback with great legs.
Shula is lucky Dungy is loyal to a fault. Dungy was lied to and disappointed in his long career as an assistant, which affects how he deals with his own assistants now. But I wonder at what point more loyalty is owed to Sapp and Brad Culpepper, Steve White and Hardy Nickerson, Ronde Barber and Lynch.
"We thought we were going to win this game playing this style," Dungy said afterward.
Dungy, the defense and special teams are so good the Buccaneers nearly did. "They made one play," Sapp said of Warner's touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl, "and that was the difference. We had 'em for 55 minutes. We were sound. But we gave 'em a short field one time too many [the touchdown pass was preceded by an interception near midfield]. We did everything we needed to do to keep it close. . . . We just needed one score."
Sapp sat at his locker, proud but frustrated. It's like he was begging for that one score. Asking the defense to hold St. Louis to nine points, outrageous as the request was, is something Sapp didn't mind. Just one score, or a couple of field goals. A Super Bowl eluded Tampa Bay because its offense couldn't produce that one score. Greatness may elude the Buccaneers, too, unless they come to terms with their most obvious problem.