FOR TAMPA BAY and Oakland, the key numbers in looking ahead to next season are 31 and $45.4 million, respectively. The Buccaneers do not have a defensive starter older than 31, and the Raiders are $45.4 million over the projected 2003 salary cap of $73.9 million.
Oakland could trim its payroll by releasing nonessential veterans such as defensive linemen Darrell Russell and Sam Adams, cornerback Tory James and running back Terry Kirby—a savings of up to $30 million, depending on when those players were cut. Left tackle Barry Sims, who showed how vulnerable he is to speed rushers when Simeon Rice whipped him on Sunday, will likely be kept, but he counts $5.13 million against the cap next season and might be one of perhaps 20 veterans asked to restructure their contracts to help the team remain competitive. The good news for Oakland is that it has only two free agents important enough to re-sign: guard Mo Collins and punter Shane Lechler.
But the payroll isn't the only concern for the Raiders, who also often had the oldest starting lineup in the league (average age: 29½). With two first-and one second-round picks in the April draft, they need an influx of young talent, though they would also need additional room under the cap to pay those players.
As for Tampa Bay, the team's biggest worry may be hubris. Like his two most outspoken and high-profile players, defensive tackle Warren Sapp and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, coach Jon Gruden never shies away from an endorsement or a moment in the spotlight. Also, there's no telling how post-Super Bowl attention will be handled by young players such as MVP free safety Dexter Jackson, 25, and cornerback Dwight Smith, 24. On the field the Bucs seem woefully unprepared to survive a serious injury to quarterback Brad Johnson, who will be 35 in September and has a history of brittleness. Expect Gruden to find an experienced backup quarterback on the free-agent market.
Gruden, the winner of 55 games and a Super Bowl before turning 40, is the most driven coach in the game, and it's hard to imagine that he'll slack off. As long as the defensive keystones stay healthy and hungry, the Bucs should stay atop one of the toughest divisions in football. "We've got to keep winning," Sapp said after Sunday's game, "to be one of the great defenses of all time."
Easier said than done. In the 10 seasons since the salary cap was instituted, only one team—the Denver Broncos—has won back-to-back Super Bowls (1998 and '99). In the four seasons after winning the second title, Denver has gone to the playoffs once and is three games over .500. Uneasy lies the crown.