It's not too early to single out the Bucs as the team that could win it all
As the final seconds ticked off the Silverdome scoreboard, Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp paused on the sideline to consider the destruction his team had wrought in a 31-10 win over the Lions. "One bad play in 60 minutes," he said. "Not bad. But we ain't done yet, baby. We'll be better."
That's a scary thought for the rest of the NFL, but he's right. The Tampa Bay defense is intimidating and has depth; we expected that. The offense is developing into a better-than-average group; we didn't expect that, certainly not this early on.
Three weeks into the season it's clear that the defending Super Bowl champion Rams have serious shortcomings on defense, and every AFC contender is flawed. So here are seven reasons why Tampa Bay will win it all.
1. The Defense Never Rests. The Bucs conjure up memories of the Reggie White-Jerome Brown-led Eagles defense of the late '80s and early '90s, but this team is deeper. It is a Tasmanian devil of a unit, and on Sunday it had seven sacks, 12 quarterback pressures, two interceptions, five pass deflections and two forced fumbles, all while holding the Lions to 17 yards rushing. Every week there's a new hero. Linebacker Derrick Brooks was the man in Week 1, cornerback Ronde Barber in Week 2 and Sapp (three sacks) and fellow defensive tackle Anthony (Booger) McFarland (2� sacks) in the Detroit game. The emergence of McFarland, a 1999 first-round draft pick out of LSU, led to the Bucs' waiving Brad Culpepper, a fan favorite and a buddy of Sapp's. With Tampa Bay sitting on a 24-10 lead, McFarland and defensive end Chidi Ahanotu combined on a sack that knocked the Lions out of field goal range. "He plays so much like me," Sapp says of McFarland, "that sometimes when we're watching film, I get the two of us confused."
2. The Intimidation Factor. Fourth quarter, Detroit still trailing by 14 with the ball at its 42. Charlie Batch passes 31 yards up the right seam for tight end David Sloan, who, with free safety Damien Robinson closing fast, pulls up short of the ball instead. "We try to hit receivers so hard early that they grow alligator arms," Robinson said later. Strong safety John Lynch intercepts the pass and returns it 36 yards, setting up the Bucs' final touchdown.
3. The Offense Has Some Teeth. In 12 quarters Tampa Bay has scored 93 points—and quarterback Shaun King has no turnovers. There's a direct correlation there. Occasionally King will pass up an open man 20 yards downfield for a shorter, safer throw or a run, but what do you expect from a player who has made only 10 NFL starts? He's beginning to find new star wideout Keyshawn Johnson (eight catches for 84 yards on Sunday), which, in turn, opens up the running game. In their first three outings the Bucs have rushed for seven touchdowns, equaling their total for all last season. The maturation of wideouts Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green, meanwhile, gives the Bucs' passing attack more depth than it has ever had.
4. A Leader in the Huddle—at Last. Midway through the third quarter Tampa Bay was stalled at the Lions' one-yard line, having failed to score on six plays (thanks to a penalty) inside the five. King stepped into the huddle on fourth down and lit into his teammates for not imposing their will on the Lions. The Bucs scored on the next play, but the touchdown was called back because of an illegal substitution. Tampa Bay settled for a field goal, but King had made his point. One teammate says King in his second season commands more respect in the huddle than the departed Trent Dilfer did in his sixth. "I won't berate them," King says of his teammates, "but we respect each other. They know what a quarterback has to do sometimes."
5. The Dungy Factor. No team respects its coach more than the Bucs respect Tony Dungy. "I owe the man everything," Sapp, the league's defensive player of the year in '99, says of his success under Dungy. Talk about an open-door policy: When the Bucs released Culpepper on Aug. 21, Sapp went to Dungy's home—the two live in the same neighborhood—knocked on his door and demanded an explanation for the roster move. Dungy invited him in and explained the reasoning behind the move; Sapp still wasn't happy, but he got a straight answer. Dungy, in his understated way, doesn't duck anything.
6. The Front Office Has a Plan. "The window-of-opportunity theory, about having a short time to win in the NFL today, is a myth," says Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay. "In the salary-cap era, you can't worry about the next three months; you have to worry about the next three years. Every year you have to rely on your coaches to develop and play unproven players." So when Culpepper was released and middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson jumped to the Jaguars in free agency, McFarland and third-year man Jamie Duncan moved into those vacancies seamlessly.