Offensive Line Can't Be Called Weakest Link
Kenyatta Walker was holding court on the victory stand, having fun with his gang of maligned cohorts while posing for a picture with the NFC championship trophy. ``Hey, Christy, get on up here,'' said Walker, searching the chaotic locker room for veteran center Jeff Christy. ``Where are you, Christy? Let's get everyone from this below- average line up here.''

Below average. That was Sunday's war cry for the men paid to protect Brad Johnson. For much of a 12-4 regular season, Tampa Bay's offensive line was reminded of its shortcomings. The criticism continued unabated, even after a 31-6 playoff dismantling of San Francisco, providing the Bucs with fresh motivation right up to the brink of a 27-10 rout of the Eagles that silenced the loudest skeptic.

``How many sacks did Philly have? None. And we scored when we had to score,'' Walker crowed. ``What are the critics going to say now? All year long, people said this line was horrible. I kept hearing a song in my head this weekend - below average. I heard a couple of guys on TV this very morning saying Tampa Bay couldn't get it done with this offensive line.''

Bill Muir, the craggy guru of this unit, was undeniably proud of his trench warriors. ``I can't express my feelings ... words are inadequate,'' said Muir, hired as Tampa Bay's offensive line coach a week before Jon Gruden came aboard. ``No one thought we had a chance. Cosey Coleman goes out with what I'm told is a serious injury. The next thing I know, they slap a brace on him and he's back out there. All we needed for motivation today was films of our last game here, when we gave up six sacks. I've been in this league 24 years and guess what? I'm finally going to the Super Bowl. Somebody better pinch me.''

Although the Bucs rushed for only 49 yards, the offensive line seldom allowed penetration. Brad Johnson had time to complete 20-of-33 pass attempts and Philadelphia's dreaded blitz failed to confuse Muir's unit. ``Every time we've come into Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia's front seven has caused us to lose,'' said Bucs general manager Rich McKay. ``Today, none of that occurred. Our offensive line doesn't get nearly enough credit for the way it has played down the stretch.''

Left tackle Roman Oben played a dynamic game against Pro Bowl defensive end Hugh Douglas, who finished with one tackle. Gruden's first- half offense was precise as the Bucs converted 4-of-6 third- down situations against the NFL's stingiest third-down defense. Tampa Bay's touchdown drives covered 96 and 80 yards, with Gruden's inventive play- calling remaining one step ahead of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. In 17 previous games, Philadelphia had allowed only three touchdowns of 80 yards or more in 70 possessions. ``I'm elated to say the least,'' Oben said. ``I flipped on the pregame show this morning just in time to hear Steve Young say the offensive line is the weak link of our team. You don't get this far with a bad unit. We just keep believing in each other, even when others doubt us. As well as we played today, we know the job's not finished.''

Coleman went out briefly with a strained knee, but the third-year guard was eager to complete the job against an Eagles defense that had haunted Tampa Bay for two years. ``It would have been easy to hang our heads after that long kickoff return to start the game, but no one on this team felt that way,'' Coleman said. ``Not one guy. I'm a proud man today. This offensive line has taken a step forward every week and kept our eye on the target. Just look at us now.''

The Tampa Tribune 18 January 2003