Kids are giving us a reason to believe
Gather 'round, kids. We'll open the presents later. First, there is a story you have to hear. It's called the Miracle of Christmas II, the sequel. According to the latest rankings, it's the second-greatest story you'll ever hear about this time of the year.

Some story, this one. It's about giving and receiving, about blame and redemption. It's about a poor Shepherd and unexpected comebacks, about the human spirit and the promise of life after the regular season. Throw in a fat man and a little drummer boy, and pretty much, you have a made-for-TV movie. Tampa Bay 27, Atlanta 24. Overtime.

And Merry Jiminy Christmas to Jon Gruden, too. It is a miracle the Bucs did not lose. If they had, you would wonder if they deserved to be in the playoffs anyway. It is a miracle they did not win earlier. If they had, you might suggest they deserve a first-round bye. It is a miracle they did not tie. If they had, you might spend much of today searching for that darned calculator.

In the end, the biggest miracle was that they won this game 11 times and lost it only 10, and the heart beat one more time than it stopped. For the Bucs, charmed bunch that they are, that is pretty much how the season has gone, filled with harrowing escapes and improbable fortunes. Of course, that beats the alternative, even though sometimes it takes overtime to do it. Nevertheless, the Bucs have won 10 games, double their number from last season. In a year, they have gone from too old to very young, from over the hill to charging up it.

Want to remember this photo on a card? Look at Chris Simms, flashing that loopy grin as he walked off the field, his fist in the air. Look at Carnell Williams, his exultation in contrast to his reserved nature. Look at Alex Smith and Dan Buenning and the rest of Gruden's new toys. In a season of unexpected success, the kids have been the best part. A year ago, the Bucs offense looked old, tired, like a team trying to wring whatever juice it could out of a patchwork huddle. There was no upside, no hope for improvement.

Now, there is. Simms threw for 285 yards and directed three critical second-half drives. Williams ran for 150 yards and broke the 1,000-yard barrier. Smith caught eight passes. Once again, you could make the argument that Buenning already is the Bucs' best offensive lineman. "Maybe we're just too dumb to know we shouldn't be doing this," Buenning said. "And we really don't care."

Truth be told, when Gruden arrived in Tampa Bay, he didn't care a bit for the young players in his locker room. Marquise Walker? Please. Travis Stephens? No, thank you. His roster was getting older, and the salary cap was getting tighter, and there was no next wave available. "It would have been hard to come in here and say we're not happy with the young players," Gruden said Saturday. "But when you look behind you, where are the players? The young players just weren't on the roster."

Now, they appear to be, and there is a feeling of something fresh to the roster. There is an energy there, a confidence, a promise the Bucs have rarely felt. "It kind of reminds you of something we've seen on the other side of the ball," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "Back when we were building this franchise."

Did you see Simms in the late going? He hit 6-of-8 in overtime, and he passed for 164 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime. Moreover, he added to his budding legend as a fourth-quarter kid. "He grows up a little bit more every week," Ronde Barber said.

Did you see Williams in the late going? He averaged 3.9 yards in his first three quarters, 6.2 on his 13 carries afterward. Williams gained 45 yards in overtime, and by the end of the game, it was obvious the Falcons were weary of tackling him. "I already think he's one of the top five running backs in the league," Simms said. "In two or three years, there is no reason he shouldn't be No. 1 or No. 2."

Did you see Smith all day? Gruden had ridden him hard last week after Smith played poorly. Much of Saturday Smith spent turning 6-yard catches into 15-yard gains. "He's going to be one of the elite tight ends in this game," Simms said. "Whether he will be as dangerous as Shockey and Gates going deep, we don't know. But already, he's one of those few tight ends who can block and catch the ball."

Did you see Buenning? No, probably you didn't. But there is a reason the Bucs run so often to the left side behind him and Anthony Davis. "He's going to go to a few Pro Bowls," Simms said. "He's completely unfazed by what he's been asked to do."

For the Bucs, in other words, getting younger has been almost as good as getting better. The good news is that their kids should continue to improve; the better news is they should be able to do it during the playoffs. It's like having your future and having your present together. And when you get down to it, there really is nothing like the faces of kids at Christmas, is there?

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 25 December 2005