Top Of The Heap
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 18 November 2002

Conventional wisdom says it can't be done this way. It says you can't win consistently, can't win big and can't win in the playoffs without a strong running game. The Bucs say different. Everything about them says different. Certainly their 23-10 victory against Carolina on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium says different. It was a victory earned with their running game producing only 67 yards. And their 8-2 record, the best for a Bucs team after 10 games, says different. After all, five of those victories came in games in which the Bucs ran for less than 100 yards and another came in a game in which they ran for 101 but averaged less than 4 yards per carry.

Even their place in the standings says different. The Bucs woke up today alone atop the NFC South and shoulder to shoulder with Green Bay atop the entire league. With six games to play, including a big battle next week against the Packers, nothing, including a playoff berth, is a lock. Still, playing in the postseason - and playing at home in the postseason - suddenly is within the Bucs' grasp. ``We control our own destiny now,'' said defensive end Warren Sapp, who had a big hand in bailing out a running game that averaged 2.3 yards a carry Sunday.

Sapp fell on a fumble caused by Simeon Rice to account for one of four Bucs takeaways. The other three were interceptions, two of which set up scores that allowed Tampa Bay to break a 10-10 third-quarter tie and later pad its lead. It was Sapp who shook off the effects of a sore back to lead a defense that held the Panthers to 231 total yards, including a very Buc-like 61 yards rushing. It was the sixth time this year that the defense limited an opponent to less than 300 yards, and one notable observer believes defense like that is all the Bucs need to get to where they want to go. ``Their defense is fantastic,'' Panthers center Jeff Mitchell said. ``I was with the [Super Bowl champion Baltimore] Ravens two years ago, and that's how we won the whole thing - with defense. Why can't they?''

Only history says they can't. In the past 20 years, only one team - the 1996 Patriots - won a Super Bowl while averaging less than 100 yards rushing per game. Maybe that's why Coach Jon Gruden, hinting at the running game, said again Sunday that, ``We still have a lot of work to do'' offensively. That has been a mantra of his all season, and one look at Bucs history tells you why. Since 1998 the Bucs are 7-17 in games in which they have rushed for less than 100 yards. This year has been different. Much different. The Bucs are 5-2 when rushing for less than 100 yards this season, and Sunday's victory was typical of what those games have been like. ``It just looked better than 67 yards,'' Sapp said of the Bucs' rushing effort. ``It didn't look like we were getting bogged down. I mean, we're still doing an excellent job of moving the chains.''

The Bucs did that Sunday thanks to a defense that consistently gave them good field position and to a passing game that produced 253 yards and two touchdowns, one to Keenan McCardell and one to Keyshawn Johnson. It was a passing attack that, like the defense, often bailed out the running game. Never was that more the case than in the second quarter, when fullback Mike Alstott was stopped for no gain on a third-and-goal from the Panthers 1. The Bucs were down 7-0 after a 20-yard touchdown pass from Rodney Peete to Steve Smith, which came in the wake of an Aaron Stecker fumble seven plays into their first drive. Feeling they needed seven points instead of three, the Bucs went for it on fourth down and scored when Brad Johnson hit Keyshawn Johnson for a 1-yard touchdown.

Later, after a Michael Pittman fumble allowed the Panthers to take a 10-7 lead, it was the passing game that again came through. This time, Brad Johnson completed three of six passes, including a 26-yarder to Joe Jurevicius on a third- and-two play, to move the Bucs into position for the first of Martin Gramatica's three field goals. ``We hit some big plays,'' Brad Johnson said of the passing game, which contributed two catches of more than 20 yards from Jurevicius and one each from Rickey Dudley and McCardell. ``The big thing with the running game is that we're not giving up on it. We're getting our 25 runs in there, and that's important.''

Nor will the Bucs give up on the running game. Gruden promised as much, and so did his bosses. ``We're doing it all different ways,'' said Joel Glazer, the son of Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer and a team executive vice president. ``Eight and two feels just great; it's very exciting. I know this franchise has never been 8-2 before, but we've got more work to do.''