The Jon Gruden soap opera aside, the best story in Super Bowl XXXVII comes down to the game itself and the battle for supremacy between the NFL's No. 1 defense and its No. 1 offense.
For the first time in a Super Bowl, the league's top-ranked units will square off to settle a debate that is decades older than tastes-great/less-filling. The Oakland Raiders are the owners of the top-ranked offense; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the league's top-ranked defense. For each unit, a place in history is at stake as well as the Lombardi Trophy.
"It's strength versus strength," Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "It's one step beyond '99. We're at the Super Bowl talking about the greatest show on green grass."
The Buccaneers shut down the St. Louis Rams' offense -- dubbed the "Greatest Show on Turf'' -- in the 1999 NFC championship game but lost, 11-6. Now the spotlight is brighter, and the challenge is just as great.
The Raiders have the league's most valuable player, Rich Gannon, at quarterback and two likely Hall of Fame wide receivers, Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, as his top targets. They have a dangerous No. 3 wideout, Jerry Porter, and a tailback, Charlie Garner, who's one of the league's best pass-catchers coming out of the backfield.
Gruden put the basics of the Oakland offense in place as the Raiders' head coach the previous four seasons. He revamped the deep passing attack always favored by Raiders owner Al Davis and installed a West Coast offensive system, utilizing mostly short and medium throws to receivers on the move in an attempt to spring them for long runs after catches. Gruden put the polish on Gannon's game, to the point that Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said this week: "Our head coach taught him too much."
This is not Gruden's offense any more, however. After the Buccaneers gave the Raiders four high draft choices and $8 million last February for the right to hire Gruden, Davis elevated offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to head coach. And one of the first moves that Callahan and his new offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman, made was to rev up Gruden's offense. They decided to get Porter -- a three-sport star at Coolidge High in the District -- on the field more often by regularly utilizing formations with three wide receivers and only one running back, and they decided to have Gannon fill the air with footballs.
"Our offense is totally different," Raiders guard Frank Middleton said. "We got tired of having the ball for 15 or 20 plays and not scoring. We wanted the big play, and that's what Callahan brought."
Gannon averaged nearly 39 passing attempts per game during the regular season, and last Sunday the Raiders entered the fourth quarter of their triumph over the Tennessee Titans in the AFC title game having handed the ball off only once. "We've thrown the ball all year and had success, so this week is not going to be any different," Oakland right tackle Lincoln Kennedy said.
The Buccaneers expect to see three-wideout formations often Sunday, and will counter by having five or more defensive backs on the field. "We'll play nickel all day long," said Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber.
Tampa Bay's usual defensive philosophy is to give top priority to taking away an opponent's big plays in the passing game. The Buccaneers have their safeties, John Lynch and Dexter Jackson, play deep and force offenses to try to string together lengthy drives before making mistakes.
"You have to attack with patience," Callahan said. "You have to be intelligent about your approach in order to not waste plays. . . . If it takes a methodical approach, so be it."
Kiffin might have to change his defense's approach on Sunday, since the Raiders' forte is to throw shorter passes and hope they become long gains. He probably is up to the task, with Sapp saying that the veteran defensive coordinator outworks even noted workaholic Gruden. "Monty sleeps there," Sapp said. "Jon goes home."
But even if the Buccaneers have to adjust to Oakland's passing approach, Barber said that Tampa Bay might have a tactical advantage in another way. If the Raiders fail to establish a running game, Barber said, the Tampa Bay pass rushers should be able to get into a groove and bother Gannon.
"It always starts with stopping the running game, even though we know they won't run the ball a lot," Barber said. "You never want to say they're playing into your hands. But if we put them in a position where they have to pass, we can do a lot of things."
The coaches who will be pulling the strings know each other well. Callahan and Trestman worked for Gruden in Oakland, and Kiffin and Trestman once were fellow assistant coaches for the Minnesota Vikings when Gannon was one of that club's quarterbacks. Kiffin heaps praise on Gannon.
"He's so smart, like a coach on the field," Kiffin said. "I can't tell you how much respect I have for him. He's awesome. He could play linebacker for me."
Gannon is perhaps the sport's most accurate passer, and still is elusive even at 37. The Buccaneers' defensive linemen aren't massive by NFL standards, but they are fast and disciplined. So even if Gannon isn't able to lead the Raiders in rushing, as he did against the Titans, he could buy himself enough time to allow his receivers to get open.
"Gannon is a lot like a robot," Gruden said. "Gannon is the 'Terminator.' He has a lot of ways to destruct a defense -- with his legs, with his arm, with his mind."
The Buccaneers hope they can pressure Gannon using only their defensive linemen as pass rushers, and Kiffin said he will have to be careful about when he blitzes so that Gannon and the Raiders won't have too many opportunities to cash in for big plays. "You take your shots, but the ball comes out quick," Kiffin said. "He's hard to get to."
For the Raiders, the key will be blocking Sapp and defensive end Simeon Rice, a speedy pass rusher who led the NFC with 151/2 sacks this season. "He can generate the turnover sack, where he gets to the quarterback and strips the ball," Callahan said. "This is a dangerous guy that we have to account for on every snap."
Said Kennedy: "We have to keep them off our quarterback."
The Tampa Bay defense is built on speed and cohesion. Sapp, Lynch and linebacker Derrick Brooks have been teammates for eight seasons. Brooks could spend a good deal of time Sunday matched up with Garner, and the Buccaneers like Brooks's chances even against a running back who had 91 catches during the regular season. Gruden tells about how he got excited on the sideline during a September game after Brooks made an open-field tackle on Rams running back Marshall Faulk. Brooks says he replied calmly, "Coach, I've always done this," and walked away.
Said Middleton: "Most defenses have a weak spot. Theirs doesn't."
History offers a hint of how the game might go. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the team with the top-ranked defense has played in seven Super Bowls and won six, and the club with the top-ranked offense has appeared in 11 Super Bowls and won seven.
Gannon set league records this season with 418 completions and 10 games with 300 or more passing yards, and his 4,689 passing yards were the seventh-best single-season total in NFL history. But most of the place-in-history talk this week has been about the Tampa Bay defense. The Buccaneers became the first team since the 1985 Chicago Bears to lead the league in total defense, fewest points allowed and interceptions.
Brooks said that if the Buccaneers win Sunday, comparisons to the top defenses in league history -- including the Baltimore unit that carried the Ravens to the Super Bowl crown two years ago -- would be valid. Those Ravens allowed only 165 points during the regular season, a league record for a 16-game season, and former Baltimore defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said today these Buccaneers aren't in the same class. Tampa Bay surrendered 196 points during the regular season, the fifth-best mark in a 16-game season.
"I don't think they're even close to where we were," Siragusa said. "How many records have they set? How many championships have they won? I don't see where people come off comparing them to us. They're a good defense, but I don't think they're anywhere close to the best ever. I'll be really interested to see how they do in this game. They're facing a team that doesn't really have a running game, but Oakland can throw the ball really well."
Tim Brown expressed a similar view, calling the Buccaneers "a great defensive squad" but saying: "I don't see Siragusa. I don't see Sam Adams, and I don't see a Ray Lewis type. They obviously have the best player, the best linebacker in the league this year, in Derrick Brooks. You certainly have to give him his respect. But he doesn't play the game like Ray Lewis. . . . They don't play defense like Baltimore. They don't play smash-mouth football or have guys who are 350, 360 pounds up there. They have guys who are 300 pounds at the most, who rely on their quickness to get to the quarterback to make plays."
Kiffin can use the debate as incentive for his players. "The Baltimore Ravens finished," Kiffin said. "We've got to finish. You're only as good as your last game."