It takes him a while. Over the years, that much has become painfully obvious. Eventually, though, Tony Dungy finds and pushes the right buttons. The right button this week just happened to be the one on a VCR. In his Saturday night address to the players, Dungy said very few words. He gave no pep talk. He simply set up the showing of a highlight reel by saying it was an example of what the Bucs are capable of accomplishing.
The highlight reel said the rest. It showed the Bucs annihilating the Minnesota Vikings in a game last season, and it clearly spoke volumes. For the Bucs went out and repeated the performance Sunday, defeating Minnesota 41-14 in a game that pumped life back into Tampa Bay's heretofore shaky season. "I don't know what it is, but somehow Tony finds a way to say the right thing or do the right thing at the right time, and this was just another example of that," safety John Lynch said. "He told us that this is what we can do if we're on our game. And then, just before he turned on the tape, he said, `Good night; I'll see you in the morning.' That was it, and let me tell you, it was powerful."
Perhaps the only thing more powerful was the play of Mike Alstott. Taking over as the featured ball carrier for the second time in three weeks, Alstott ran a career-high 28 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns in three quarters of play. "We really didn't do anything special," said Alstott, who carried the ball just 31 times in the Bucs' previous five games. "The guys on the line just got a hat on a hat and that's what allowed me to get past the line. When they do that, we can be successful."
Alstott's effort was just one element in what proved to be a vintage display of BucBall. That's the moniker the Bucs have given to Dungy's oft-criticised but mostly successful style. It's a style that calls for the Bucs to not only pound the ball repeatedly on offense, but to play stout defense, and the Bucs did that as well.
Erasing a lot of the concern they brought about while stumbling through a 2-3 start, the Bucs' defense surrendered just 193 total yards (their fewest since giving up 127 against the Cowboys in Week 1) and completely dominated the Vikings in the early going. They had forced opposing offenses to go three plays and out just eight times during its first five games, but the Bucs forced Minnesota to go three- and-out on five of its first six drives. It then killed the Vikings' seventh drive by forcing an interception after just two plays. "That's really our formula," Dungy said. "Our defense's job is to get the ball back for the offense, because that gives us a chance to run the ball. Today it worked. Today we showed people what we're capable of. But it was just one game, and one game doesn't constitute a trend."
That point wasn't lost on those smiling inside the Bucs' locker room. No sooner had the whistle blown ending Sunday's encounter with the Vikings than attention turned to next week's game with Green Bay at Lambeau Field. "We've got to take this feeling, this effort, and we've got to bottle it up and take it with us to Green Bay," Alstott said. "If we don't, this won't mean anything. We've got to build off of this."
There's plenty to build off, too. The defense, which allowed opponents to convert 51 percent of their third downs the first five games, allowed Minnesota to convert just three of 12. Meanwhile, the offense scored on seven consecutive possessions after turning the ball over on downs on its first possession. And it wasn't just Alstott, who finally got some solid blocking from his offensive line, doing the scoring.
During a first half in which the Bucs matched their previous season-high for an entire game with 28 points, Dave Moore scored on a 5-yard pass from Brad Johnson and reserve tailback Aaron Stecker scored on a 35-yard screen pass the Vikings knew was coming. "When we were up at the line on that play, we could hear their guys yelling, `Screen! Screen! Screen!' They knew what was coming," Moore said. "But that just shows you that it all comes down to execution, and that's what Coach Dungy showed us on Saturday with that tape [of last year's 41-13 win over Minnesota]."
Dungy, who was presented the game ball by his players, showed more than just some taped highlights in reviving his team this week. He also showed a sign of himself that few players have seen. "We could feel it as early as Wednesday," said Brian Kelly, who replaced Donnie Abraham as the starting left cornerback in Dungy's only major lineup change. "Just the way he was at practice. He was like a quiet assassin walking around there."
The mood never changed all week, and by Saturday it had grabbed the attention of all the players. "He stepped up, and when he needed us to, he had everybody listening." Alstott said. "From the first day all through the week, he just pushed all the right buttons. When we get in trouble, that's what he does."