On search for that missing something
A fine idea it is for the Bucs to come to the Gateway City to try to find themselves. After all, it is here where they got lost. They walked onto the field Monday night like a misplaced team trying to retrace its footsteps, and it was impossible not to compare the Bucs to the way they were the last time they entered this stadium. This is where it happened. On this field, against this opponent, facing these kinds of odds. It was here, in this high-volume stadium called the Dome at America's Center, that the Bucs suffered their toughest loss but celebrated their finest hour.

In some ways, the Bucs never have recovered from losing the NFC Championship of '99. That season died 35 yards short of the Super Bowl, and the Bucs have not come as close to greatness since. They no longer play defense as if they invented the concept. They no longer seem promised tomorrow. What happened? Did the Bucs somehow leave their spark, their edge, inside the visiting dressing room? If so, where is Lost and Found?

There were times, early in Monday night's game, that the defense gave you cause to remember what it was. Warren Sapp was a monster again. Derrick Brooks had his speed back. Then there were other times when they overran plays, when they missed tackles. It is a difficult slip from great to very good, because you still can fool yourself into thinking that nothing has changed. Anyone can recognise the difference in a great team that wakes up lousy. But there still are excellent players on the Bucs' defense, and there are times they do impressive things.

So we take it on faith that greatness remains with them, and we wait for the Bucs to find the switch and turn things on again. The truth is, they have been out of step since they walked off that field in St. Louis two seasons ago. That night, the Bucs' defenders were amazing. They ran, and they knocked away passes, and they did not miss a tackle. They intimidated receivers. They flustered Kurt Warner. They took an offense that looked unstoppable and they folded it into a paper airplane.

Compare that defense with this one, and you can see how the Bucs have slid. They no longer own third down. They no longer protect leads as if they were treasures. They no longer erase the opposing running back from the game. Receivers no longer threaten their quarterbacks for daring to throw the ball to them across the middle. In short, the Bucs defense still makes opponents nervous, but it doesn't keep them awake nights anymore.

Remember the way the game began two years ago, when Bucs defensive end Steve White intercepted a pass. Contrast it to Monday night, when a pass by Kurt Warner barely eluded the fingers of Simeon Rice before being caught by tight end Ernie Conwell, who ran for 34 yards to set up a field goal. It's the difference between making a play and almost making a play.

So what's the difference? Does the team still miss Hardy Nickerson, or is that just convenience? Has the hunger been satisfied by big contracts and publicity, or is the drive the same? Has all the expense of improving the offense somehow lessened the urgency of a defense that once knew it had to shoulder the burden. Biggest question: Have the stars been the same?

hat game against the Rams was the night that America noticed the abilities of the Bucs' biggest players. Warren Sapp had been good for a while, but this was his highest platform. Derrick Brooks put on a tackling clinic, almost single-handedly erasing Marshall Faulk from the game. John Lynch turned the middle of the yard into a minefield. The Rams, a 141/2 point favorite, managed nine points on offense in an 11-6 victory.

This season, for varied reasons, the Bucs defense hasn't been quite what it was. Sapp has played better than you think, and he's played hard. But he has not made the game-changing great plays of his past. Brooks, who has been hurt, has lacked the same range. Lynch has not been as consistent as he has been in seasons past. The entire defense has been an arm's length from what it was. The result is confidence has been shaken. You could argue that was as big a weapon as any on the Bucs defense back in '99.

Do you remember the attitude the Bucs brought with them to St. Louis? They were like a kid who has heard too much about the toughness of the neighbourhood bully. "We took everything people were saying personally," former defensive tackle Brad Culpepper said. "I remember talking to Cris Collinsworth and Howie Long and saying the Rams weren't going to score 20 points on us, and they just kind of scoffed. We were as determined as anyone could be. There were players who had tears in their eyes as we walked onto the field to play. That's how we took it. It took a perfect play, a perfect pass to beat us."

Tell me: How many times since that night have the Bucs entered a game that ticked off? How many times have they been that combative, that cohesive, that cantankerous? Not many. For the Bucs, perhaps the answer is here still. After all, the first step to finding something lost is to locate it. Then you have to reclaim it.