- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

TAMPA, Fla.
Now that the Colts are home, licking their 41-0 wounds, and Tampa Bay is headed to Philadelphia for the NFC title game, perhaps we can entertain the notion that Jon Gruden is the right coach at the right time for these ferocious/infuriating Bucs. Yes, Tony Dungy is an upstanding fellow, and granted, Malcolm Glazer gave up a multitude of draft picks to acquire Gruden's services from the Raiders, but look at the results, will ya? Have the Bucs ever performed in the playoffs like they did in their 31-6 snuffing of San Francisco yesterday?
That was Dungy's biggest failing here too many one-and-dones and his fortunes haven't changed any in Indianapolis. The Colts were absolutely vaporized by the Jets in their wild-card game two weekends ago. Gruden's Bucs, on the other hand, scored 28 points against the 49ers in the first half alone, more than they'd ever put up in an entire posteason game (24). This is what's known as Having Your Ballclub Ready.
"This team has taken on the personality of a coach who likes challenges," said John Lynch, Tampa Bay's intrepid strong safety. "Jon challenges you daily, and [going to Philly] is just another one of those challenges."
The Bucs' recent playoff games have had an excruciating, grind-it-out quality to them Warrick Dunn right, Mike Alstott left, incomplete pass on third down (and pray for a defensive touchdown). Yesterday, though, Brad Johnson came out throwing and kept on throwing, especially after Ahmed Plummer, the Niners' best cover man, exited with a dislocated shoulder in the early going. So much for the concerns about Johnson's injured back (which had caused him to miss the last two regular-season games and arguably cost the Bucs the home-field advantage in the NFC). Once he shook off the rust and a first-series interception he was his usual effective self, guiding the offense to touchdowns in four of its next five possessions.
He played, in fact, much the way he did with the Redskins in '99, the year he went to the Pro Bowl. He distributed the ball equitably among his receivers, didn't try to make throws he can't make and finished with 196 yards passing, two TDs and "six or seven stitches."
The stitches, over his right eye, were the result of being clawed by a San Francisco defender in the third quarter and were covered afterward by a super-sized Band-Aid, his badge of honor. Happily for the Bucs, however, he only missed a few plays.
Johnson and his accomplices just obliterated San Francisco's nickel defense. On the first third-and-long, he hit Joe Jurevicius for a 15-yard gain, and that conversion was followed by another and another and another 10 third-down conversions in 14 tries in the first three quarters. The 49ers, meanwhile, did what they could to help, picking up a couple of interference penalties deep in their own territory.
"We thought the offense would take off by Week 11, Week 12," said Johnson, "and if you look at the numbers, that's pretty much what it's done. We're scoring points, we're putting together drives, we don't have many turnovers. It's taken us some time what with a new coaching staff and so many new players but we've picked up [Grudens system] pretty fast."
The 49ers were able to come back on the Giants the week before miraculously but there wasn't even the hint of a rally against the Bucs. Warren Sapp and Co. just wouldn't allow it. Not only did they chase Jeff Garcia to distraction, they gave Terrell Owens (four catches, 35 yards) no reason whatsoever to pull out a Sharpie. Heck, if Tampa Bay hadn't committed back-to-back personal foul penalties, the Niners wouldn't even have gotten their second field goal.
And the Tampa crowd. I'll let Sapp describe it: "I looked out of the tunnel [during pre-game introductions] and said, 'Man, what is this? Red and white [Bucs] flags waving. I've been here eight years, and it ain't never been like this. It didn't look like there was a San Francisco fan in the stands. Just an electric atmosphere."
The atmosphere will be much different Sunday at Veterans Stadium not to mention colder. And the Bucs' engine, as we all know, tends to stall when the temperature nears freezing. Then there are their four straight losses to the Eagles, two of them in the playoffs and one of them earlier this season (20-10 in Philly). That's not very encouraging, either.
"Philly is a wild place," Lynch agreed. "The fans cuss you, call you every name in the book. When you're down by three points, it feels like you're down by three touchdowns."
But Gruden, who spent three years in Philadelphia as the offensive coordinator and several more coaching in the Oakland nuthouse is undaunted. "Be it the Vet or the Walt Whitman Bridge," he promised, "we'll be there."

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