Once again, Bucs are hard to figure
Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune , published 24 December 2001

We know when they've been sleeping. We know when they're awake. We know when they've been bad or good. They're the Bucs, for goodness sake. There was an air of desperation, and that's pure oxygen to this crew. They raced down the stairs and over the New Orleans Saints, who looked as though they had presents to wrap. That's it. I'm calling for Jim Haslett's head.

You just never know which Bucs you'll find under the tree. Fourteen games into this season, six years into Tony Dungy, and they have yet to win our trust. They won and won and won Sunday, 48-21. It was over with the first tackler Aaron Stecker shed on the opening kickoff. The Bucs brought it all in what amounted to a playoff knockout game. They brought everything they didn't bring to Chicago. Which raises questions. Do you believe 48-21? Do you believe this team?

Not even Dungy knows what to expect. He had a hunch he would see the good Bucs on Sunday. But he is never sure. If that is an indictment, he could share a lawyer with lots of NFL coaches. How could your head not spin at the sight of a 30-0 halftime lead? Or a record-tying 48 points? Every time you looked up, Mike Alstott was bulling past Saints or Ronde Barber was picking off a pass.

The Bucs offense that had scored one touchdown through 13 first quarters scored two before this first quarter was five minutes old, leading everyone to believe Clyde Christensen got stuck in traffic. But Clyde was there, headset and all. Meanwhile, the defense held the New Orleans offensive coordinator to 72 feet in the first half.

It took backs against the wall to squeeze this game out of the Bucs. That's when a Dungy club is at its best. Mind you, it has had enough practice. It took Dungy's future in limbo for his club to come out swinging. Knockout.

We resist the temptation to raise Buc arms in victory. Ever get the feeling this team is a tease? That its sole purpose in life is to get people on the bandwagon so it can shake them off and run over them? The Bucs, for all their talent, have played around four solid games this year, and never in a row. They've shown an ability to string together bad games. And squeaker wins. Now comes the time for good upon good. Will we see it? Will we trust it even then?

If only they could bottle the magic and energy Stecker showed on the opening kick. Coming into Sunday, the Bucs had received 1,537 kickoffs and had never run one back for a touchdown. Saturday night, Stecker dreamed about history, though surely not as much as Joann Rubright of Wesley Chapel, who was on the sideline Sunday and would have won a $1 million contest prize if a Buc had taken a kick to the glory zone.

Joann is the only person in town mad at the Bucs today. By the way, the $1 million prize will now roll over until the next Bucs game or be donated to the Gramatica Leg Research Institute. For 86 yards, Aaron Stecker's legs and heart churned like a money machine until he was downed. But the tone of this game was already set, with each and every Saint who fell off him as he ran. “It wasn't just the 80 yards or whatever he gained,” John Lynch said. “It was how he did it. That was a want-to play.”

A want-to play. A want-to win. But you couldn't help but hear what happened on the first play after Stecker's return. Warrick Dunn ran into a wall of Saints for no gain. Bucs fans remembered Chicago. “The boo birds came out,” Lynch said. “On the sideline we kind of looked around. We had to win them back already. We had to earn their respect back.” They did. For now. Will the good Bucs be back Saturday for the world champion Ravens? There is no telling. The Bucs are the only team in the world, except for a basketball team, that can score 48 points and still have doubters. They scored big against Minnesota, didn't they? Sucked us on in, right? This team has earned doubters. Time to eliminate them. Dungy figures it this way: “The trick is to win enough games to get in and hopefully you get your 30-0 game going in the playoffs.”

This was going to be the season without tricks. Well, this team doesn't work that way. It needs to be hanging from a cliff, head coach and all, before it spits out greatness. If we knew the secret to consistency, we'd be so rich we'd lend Joann the mill. “We the Bucs, baby,” Warren Sapp said. “We make it hard.” He's right - trust us.