Bucs Smell The Scent, Go In For The Kill
Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune, published 24 September 2002

The St. Louis Rams tried their best to show everyone at Raymond James Stadium that they were those old Rams, those swaggering Rams, those champion Rams. So they danced on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers logo at midfield before Monday night's game. They were 0-2 and they were a desperate crew, but they wanted to show everyone were still the Rams. No, they weren't. The Bucs made sure of it. They were tougher.

You knew it as Derrick Brooks carried yet another interception to the end zone, this time to save a victory, not a shutout. It was his first play back after a cramped hamstring put him on the side. You knew it when Brooks' lead blocker on the play that sealed a 26-14 win, Warren Sapp, made a pancake filled with St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner, the very symbol of the old Rams. Yeah, the Bucs made sure. And maybe picked up a little swagger of their own.

How much can you really make out of three strides of a 16-game marathon? This and that. Yes, the Bucs offense still looked more than shaky, though the defense often looked harder than granite.Monday was important. Here's one reason why: Coming into this season, and since 1990, 59 NFL teams began the season 0-3. Of those 59, only three advanced to the playoffs. There you had it. The Rams were down. The Bucs kept them down.

It's tough putting away a team hanging from a cliff, a defending NFC champion turned cornered animal. Especially when you consider recent Bucs history. This club usually never got around to being serious until late in the season, until it was nearly too late, or too late. Take your pick. Recent history, even with two consecutive wins against St. Louis since that NFC title game, even with the defense roaring as it always does when it sniffs Rams jerseys, suggested this was far too early in the season for a football team from Tampa Bay to be making serious statements. But they did. The Rams were down and the Bucs deftly placed a foot on their neck.

Granted, it was an awful funny- shaped foot at times. It had seven toes and hair all over it when on offense in the second half. It was hardly good enough. But the defense was great enough. The Rams are reeling. St. Louis coach Mike Martz hasn't been the same since Bill Belichick and the Patriots cut his ego down to size. Now he is looking over his shoulder. So is Warner, who has turned into an interception machine. The Rams used to get away with mistakes because of sheer talent. Now they can't cover Rickey Dudley, the new tight end who scored the Bucs' first touchdown after Simeon Rice got hit in the numbers with a Warner interception. Also in there was a great fingertip grab by Keyshawn Johnson. Other guys have talent, too.

The Bucs sometimes get by on sheer talent, though they've never gotten by all the way to the Super Bowl. Something always stops them, usually sooner than later. Maybe the Rams won't be that something. But there are plenty of others out there. Like Philadelphia. The torch has passed. Maybe some of what happened Monday can't keep happening. The Rams kept waiting for the Bucs to strangle them, but the Bucs refused all the way into the final quarter, clinging to a 6-point lead.

The Bucs offense was horrible. Its only points came on a short Mike Alstott bull-rush touchdown set up by an interception by Brian Kelly, the same Brian Kelly beaten by Warner and Ricky Proehl for the game-winner in the 1999 NFC title game. But this night wasn't for poetic justice. It was for toughness, toughness that overcame the offense, which missed the two- pointer after the Alstott score and rolled over after the defense finally relented. It was 19-14. Rams ball. Late fourth quarter, But plenty of time left.

The Bucs said different. The defense said different. Since 1999, the Rams have been held under 20 points only eight times. The Bucs have now done it three of those times. Brooks made sure of it. He had strained his left hamstring late in the third quarter. You could see him stretching on the side, trying to make it right. Then he went in and made a touchdown. Sapp saw Warner. The Buc leveled the Ram. One swagger was gone. Had another arrived?