It's okay: You can cheer now
Go ahead. Believe. Stop shaking your heads. Let go of the doubts. Let the cynicism, built so high over so many years, slip away. A new era has indeed begun. The Bucs are better. From the looks of things, they might even be good. Believe it. It's all right.

There will be those today who will remind you the Bucs won only one game Sunday when they beat the Eagles 21-6. They will attempt to bring you back to earth by pointing to the 15 games ahead, during which they expect this team to return to reality. Some may even point out that, technically, other teams remain in the NFC playoff race.

Doubting the Bucs has gone on so long, and it has provided Tampa Bay's fans with their only safety net, that it will be hard for everyone to stop at once. This time, do not listen to them. To quote noted philosopher and congressman Sonny Bono: History has turned a page, uh-huh. There is a difference to this team. It is so clear even a one-eyed pirate could see it. Even the way they walked off the field after winning was different.

Some years, winning turned the joint into a New Year's Eve party. The Bucs would slap palms and jump and hug. This time? They walked off the field as if they had put in a hard day's work and merely met their quota. This victory did not amaze them, an amazing enough sight in itself. "I'll dance," Ian Beckles said, "when we make the playoffs."

"It was one game," Tony Mayberry said. "You only get excited about one game when it's the Super Bowl."

Playoffs. Super Bowl. Some years, such talk would be reason to call the trainer and check the player speaking for concussion damage. Not now. Hardy Nickerson talked about overconfidence. Brad Culpepper actually said, "You can't win them all unless you win the first one."

And you know what? It didn't sound like whistling through a graveyard for a change. Is this a great team? No, you can't say that. The defense gave up too many yards. The offense sputtered at times. There still is improvement to make. "I really don't know if we played that great," Culpepper said.

But there is a difference, and it was most obvious in the fourth period, during those plays where the crowd noise swells and the fans hunch forward. These are the key plays in any game, and the better team usually wins them. In their history, the Bucs have won thousands of little plays, but few big ones. This time, they won them all.

Consider the way the fourth period began. The Eagles were within 7-6, and they had penetrated to the Bucs' 26 on their previous series. In seasons past, this would have been the time the Bucs would have folded.

Take third and 1, for instance. When have the Bucs made a key third and 1 in recent years? This time, Errict Rhett burst up the middle for 7 yards. Take second and 5 from the Eagles' 15. As Trent Dilfer threw incomplete, a flag flew. In past years, it would have been holding on the Bucs. This time, it was holding on the Eagles. Take second and goal from the 10. Remember the Bucs' problems around the goal line last year? This time, Dilfer hit Jackie Harris with a touchdown pass.

Next drive, it was the same thing. On third and 9, Dilfer hit Horace Copeland for 16. On third and 10, he hit him for 44. When it was time for big plays, the Bucs turned into big players. When has that ever happened?

For three quarters, the Bucs were 0-for-5 in third-down conversions. When it counted, they were 4-of-5. The one they missed in the final period was when Dilfer went down to kill the clock at the end. It was the Eagles who were left to explain their play-calling in the end zone. It was the Eagles who looked as if they bought the wrong free agent (Ricky Watters). It was the Eagles who grasped for excuses and reasons and promised that things would get better.

This time, it was the Bucs who were the calm team. The poised team. The team that scraped and hung in and found a way to win. This was a team that utterly believed in itself, and in its capabilities, and in the season ahead. It's also a team that believes you should believe, too. Go ahead. This time, it appears safe.

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1995