Where have these guys been?
By nature, you could describe those who watch the Bucs with any regularity as a mellow lot. They do not expect a lot. Just this. They are laid back around here. They expect a little excellence and a little efficiency. Oh, and a bit of hunger and a dose of hustle. And some precision and a touch of passion. And urgency and imagination and ruthlessness and brutality and resiliency and darned near perfection. Just that.

What they expect, in other words, are games such as Sunday's, when the Bucs stopped being a perfect mess and darned near played a perfect game. For the first time this season, the Bucs were able to stand up to their standards, and ours, in a 41-14 clobbering of the Vikings that could have been worse.

No, you haven't been asking too much of the Bucs. If there was a message in the massacre, it was that. The Bucs answered their critics, and what they said was: Hey, you're right! You've got a point! We have been playing on the south side of mediocre! "I'm right with everyone," John Lynch said. "There is nothing worse in life than underachievement, and we've been underachieving for a long time. This is the way we're capable of playing. This is the way we should play."

This was like watching an old friend come back. This was the way this team was supposed to be, and the way this season was supposed to go. Gee, no wonder everyone was so disappointed. This was Alstott, wading through the Vikings until they were ready to surrender. It was Brad Johnson, flipping a left-handed pass for a first-down completion. It was 35 minutes of the Vikings being unable to manage a 1st down.

It was the offensive line, moving bodies. It was Todd Washington, returning kick-offs like the Missing Metcalf Brother. It was Derrick Brooks, breaking and bloodying Daunte Culpepper's nose. It was turning Cris Carter and Randy Moss invisible for the time that mattered. It was Aaron Stecker, winding through the secondary. It was a defense, swarming once again. It was an offense scoring 41 without Warrick Dunn, without Jacquez Green, without Keyshawn Johnson for the second half. This was the cannons thundering until it sounded like night-time in Kabul.

This was the Bucs. Or, put another way, this was the Bucs? "They kicked our (butts) in the first half, and they came out in the second half and kicked our (butts) again," tight end Byron Chamberlain said. "And if there had been a third half, they probably would have kicked it, too."

For the first 2 quarters, this was as close to a perfect game as football gets. Starting with their second possession, the Bucs scored seven straight times. Meanwhile, the Vikings, the same team that broke Tampa Bay's heart with a 96-yard drive in the closing minutes a month ago, moved by the inch. The guys with the first-down markers could have gone to lunch whenever the Vikings had the ball, and it wouldn't have mattered.

Where the heck has this been all along? For most of the season, the Bucs have wandered like a child lost in a forest. You could debate for days at a time whether the offense was worse than the defense, or vice versa.

Then, from somewhere, this. It was such a delightful day that the biggest ovation of all might have come when Brad Johnson threw an incompletion. Fans were absolutely delighted that he had deemed to try to throw one deep. Johnson, not one to miss a moment, bowed at the rare sound of cheers. "If I knew where it has been," Warren Sapp said, "I would invent a cure for cancer and do something useful with my life instead of running around on a field."

Okay, forget where the spark has been. Here's a better question. Now that it has shown up, will it stay? Was this a one-time offer -- and let's face it, playing Minnesota at home always has been penicillin for the Bucs -- or is this the start of something good? "I'd like to believe it's the start of something special," Lynch said. "There were things out there that reminded us of how it is when we're playing well. The way it sounded. The way it felt. I think we're on the verge of something big."

For the Bucs, this is the way it is. Every year, the team has to be placed into the coffin before it shows signs of life. For three years in a row, it has been 3-4. This is a team that has definitely watched Rocky one time too many. The Bucs' personality is that of a contrarian. For whatever reason, it will not show you that it is good until you swear that it is not. No one gets dangerous until times get desperate.

If you watch the Bucs, perhaps you should keep that in mind this week. Perhaps you should hold your praise. Quibble that the defense didn't get any turnovers. Complain about how the Bucs showed far too much mercy by kneeling at the end. This is a team that needs you to complain. Odd. Most teams have a fight song instead. "Maybe we can get you guys to write that we aren't any good," Tony Dungy suggested. "That seems to help."

Gee, I said. I could get a game ball? Dungy looked at me. "You got some votes," he said. On behalf of Tampa Bay, Tony, you're welcome.