For a day, Bucs chase perfection of their own
Rest easy, '72 Dolphins, your unique NFL perfection will not be approached for another season. Raise some champagne toasts, 17-and-0 legends Shula and Csonka and Griese, to resurgent Buccaneers who've stomped the 0 out of Minnesota's record. Sunday was a three-headed Tampa Bay beauty: (1) A suddenly potent offense, with four touchdown passes, (2) some truly special kick coverage plus (3) indefatigable defense that refused to be knocked out by Minnesota monsters Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss, Robert Smith and Cris Carter.
It began, that 41-13 strangulation of 7-0 purples, when Warren Sapp faced one-on-one blocking - "Something I seldom see," said the round, renowned Bucs defensive catalyst - and No. 99 clobbered Culpepper, a 266-pound Kid Hercules at quarterback. "We know Daunte carries the football loose," Sapp said. "Our aim wasn't just to get to him but to try for a fumble." It worked, barely 3 1/2 minutes in the game. Smack! Scrape! Warren stripped Culpepper. Marcus Jones recovered for Tampa Bay at the Minnesota 14.
"That lit the fire," Sapp said. "We got a touchdown when Keyshawn (Johnson) muscled into the end zone after a catch. It was 7-0 us. From there, we poured on the gas. Warrick Dunn running like a madman. Shaun King throwing passes like the man we know he is. Our big-time players really did their jobs. Keyshawn made tremendous grabs. Derrick Brooks returned an interception for a score. Minnesota, we all know, has a whopper of an offense. They kept our defense on the field 22 minutes of the first half, but nobody was about to back off. Getting tired wasn't allowed."
During those first two quarters, the Vikings had possession 72 percent of the time, but the Bucs scored 70 percent of the points, snarling to a 31-13 halftime bulge.
Beating the odds. Brooks delivered the knockout punch. Tampa Bay was up 21-10. Shelton Quarles disrupted Culpepper with a blitz. Daunte threw, but it was limp. Derrick stole it and went smoking toward the left sideline. Nobody could hinder the swift, 235-pound linebacker. Brooks chugged 34 yards for a touchdown and the 28-10 message was "Party over, Vikings!"
"I turned the corner and saw the pylon," Brooks said. "It'd been too long since I took one back all the way." Last time was in 1993, back at Florida State, when Derrick had a touchdown return against Clemson. Charlie Ward won the Heisman Trophy that season and the Seminoles became national champions.
Bucs were smiling again.
"Our key was to stop the run," Sapp said. "That plus not allowing Moss to make big plays. When our offense kept scoring points, it erased Robert Smith's effect. His running hurt us badly when we lost to the Vikings in their house."
There was resolve, but also desperation in Bucs psyche. After four consecutive losses, another stumble could've opened a deadly trap door, leaving Tampa Bay as a wobbly long shot to squeak into playoffs.
Minnesota was undefeated, but the Bucs had to win. Talk about musts. Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, sounding a bit like Confucius, made this suggestion: "You can't get a winning streak going unless you win one."
Amen, Monte. They overcame even instant replay. Sapp went rocking into Culpepper a second time. Football dropped to the grass. Warren picked it up at the Vikings 45 and took off. End zone in his huffing dreams.
"I was running like I'd stole something," Sapp would joke. Culpepper chased down the 303-pound defensive lineman at the Vikings 8. Daunte, in making the stop, used his right arm as a club. Trying to force a Sapp fumble. "No chance," said No. 99. "There was no stealing that ball from me."
But the play did get taken away. Minnesota made a video challenge. Phil "Bad" Luckett, a referee with whom the Bucs have a rotten history, spent 90 seconds watching reruns and then reversed the fumble call. Snatching a chance for the Bucs to go up 21-3. Minnesota took advantage, rolling to a touchdown after Sapp's heroics were scrubbed. It became 14-10. Then, as Tampa Bay's defense left the field, Warren "consulted" with Luckett. "At first, the ref just walked away from me," Sapp said. "I told him, 'Don't leave me, that was my play.' He said Culpepper's arm was moving forward. That it was an incomplete pass. Yeah, look at that replay over and over, tell me that was the correct call."
This is the NFL referee who once goofed up a pregame coin toss. A fellow who awarded Vinny Testaverde a critical touchdown when the Jets quarterback never got close to the goal. "I'm not saying any more," Sapp added with his signature grin. "I want to keep my money in my pocket."
It wouldn't matter. "That bad call wasn't stopping us," Sapp said. "In all phases, we played like we should. When we do, almost nobody is going to beat us. It's just one win, but from here we can get on a roll. Then see what happens."
Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 2000