- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2003

PHILADELPHIA.
For years we've wondered what the Tampa Bay Bucs could accomplish if they had any semblance of an offense. We watched them go to the NFC title game three years ago with Shaun King as their quarterback and lose to the St. Louis Rams by the single-wing score of 11-6. We watched them drop two playoff games to the Eagles in Philadelphia without scoring a single touchdown. The Bucs' defense might be dynamite, but not dynamite enough to get the team to the Super Bowl all by itself; how many defenses in NFL history have been?
All Warren Sapp and Co. needed was a little encouragement a TD here, a field goal there, an occasional drive by their offense that would give them a chance to catch their breath. It was a long time coming. Once the Bucs became regular playoff participants, in 1997, they waited five seasons for a credible quarterback to join their ranks and six for a head coach who had any real feel for offense.
But look at what Brad Johnson and Jon Gruden have wrought. In just their first year of collaboration, they've led the Bucs to the Ultimate Game with a pair of smashing victories 31-6 over San Francisco and 27-10 over Philly in the last game at Veterans Stadium. By the end yesterday, the crowd of 66,713 was a bummed and booing bunch, incredulous that Tampa Bay, a postseason patsy for the Eagles the past two years, could do this to their heroes in Their House.
These aren't the old Bucs, though a fact that seems to have escaped Philadelphia coach Andy Reid. Reid thought he could beat the Bucs the way he'd beaten them the last four times, by getting ahead of them early and then letting his defense control the game. There's only one problem with this approach: With Gruden calling the plays and Johnson executing them, Tampa Bay can score now.
"Our defense is awesome," Gruden said. "We knew we could go to the Super Bowl with that defense if he could just find a rhythm on offense and get in some kind of balance. When we came in here [Oct. 20 and lost to the Eagles, 20-10] we played about as poorly as you can play offensively. But I think our offense has improved dramatically since the beginning to the season."
Indeed it has. Over the second half of the season, Johnson has been as effective as any quarterback in the NFL. He might not be as much of a Highlight Reel Guy as Michael Vick or Donovan McNabb being a pocket passer and all but he's wonderfully consistent and doesn't beat himself (eight interceptions all year, counting the playoffs).
As Ronde Barber put it, "The last eight weeks of the season, Brad's been to me the MVP of the league. The offense creates points off our turnovers, and we work in concert as a team. It's a beautiful feeling."
When Philly scored in the first 52 seconds on a 20-yard run by Duce Staley following Brian Mitchell's 70-yard kickoff return Tampa Bay answered with a drive of its own that resulted in a field goal. Later in the first quarter, the Bucs went 96 yards, 71 of them coming on a pass to No.3 receiver Joe Jurevicius, to go in front, 10-7.
That was the series that told you: Andy Reid is getting outcoached in this game, isn't adjusting to what's going on. Because it should have been clear to him (as it certainly was to these eyes) that Tampa Bay was going to be able to move the ball on his defense, four Pro Bowlers or no four Pro Bowlers. And that meant he had to open up his offense a little more, maybe get McNabb to improvise a few times and generally just try to be less predictable. He never really did, though. He continued to play like he could still win the game 14-10, continued to dump the ball off and run in passing situations and keep the wraps on his quarterback. And so 10-7 became 17-10 and then 20-10 and then 27-10 much to the dismay of the Philly faithful.
Johnson, the QB Dan Snyder didn't want, isn't just going to the Super Bowl, he's a prime candidate for an Isotoner commercial. How did you like that glove he wore on his passing hand yesterday, the one that enabled him to complete 20 of 33 for 259 yards and a touchdown against the best secondary in football? It was Gruden's idea, naturally.
"Jon's a pretty smart man," Johnson said. "All week he said, 'Practice with the glove, practice with the glove,' so I practiced with the glove. I couldn't have thrown it the way I did today without the glove. It was cold, the balls were new and slick
To which his coach added, "I've done a lot of research on the subject. I couldn't throw it very well myself when it was cold or wet. But with gloves on I could throw it like Brad Johnson. It was definitely a factor in the ballgame. I told him, 'If you don't wear the gloves, I'm gonna strap you down and put 'em on you.'"
Three hours later, the Bucs were headed to San Diego and a date with the team Gruden left behind, the Raiders. If they keep playing the way they've been playing, they'll no longer be "paper champions" (as the Steelers' Lee Flowers derisively called them), they'll be real ones. It'll be the Eagles 12-game winners three seasons in a row with no rings to show for it who'll wear the paper crowns then.


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