It's A Dream Matchup: Bucs, Raiders In Super Bowl
Tucked away in some corner of your mind where you keep your hopeless fantasies, perhaps you dreamed of this. Having the Bucs make the Super Bowl was wild enough, but then you may have thought, ``What if they played - the Raiders!''

Yeah, that would be so perfect, it couldn't possibly happen. Well, welcome to Football Lotto. The Super Bowl just hit a jackpot. As the final minutes of Oakland's 41-24 victory against Tennessee became official in the damp, chilly air at Network Associates Coliseum Sunday night, the incomprehensible became official. Yes. It's the Raiders.

Jon Gruden will lead the Bucs into Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego against - it's amazing to even think it, let alone write it - the Raiders he left behind. Less than a year removed from his indentured servitude to Raiders owner Al Davis, at the cost of four premium draft picks and $8 million to the Bucs, Oakland now gets its chance at revenge. Think the Raiders aren't aware who will be on the other sideline? Consider the postgame comments of Raiders' guard Frank Middleton, an ex-Buc who does not have a future career as a diplomat. ``It's not about Gruden. It's about winning the Super Bowl,'' he said.

When pressed a bit, though - and it didn't take much - Middleton admitted that having Gruden on the other sideline is ``sweeter.'' Provided the Raiders win, of course. ``We've got to admit it's going to be sweet,'' he said. ``The guy left us because he thought he had a better opportunity. Now we meet at center field. It's time to play football. He knows us, better than anybody. He worked with a lot of these guys for a lot of years, so he knows what we like. It's going to be good for everybody. It'll make everybody happy. It will be a ticket worth buying.''

Oh yes, the Raiders remember Chucky. They remember his name being linked to Notre Dame during the middle of the Raiders' season. They remember going to New England last year for the playoffs, with everyone wondering whether Gruden would even be on the return flight home. They remember Gruden's agent pointedly telling Davis that Gruden wouldn't sign a contract extension with the Raiders under any circumstance. On the first day of the regular-season, the Raiders had just polished off their own win and were watching the end of the Bucs-Saints game, the one that went into overtime. When the Bucs lost, cheers came from the Raiders' coaches office. Lots Of BaggageIt's not just Chucky, either.

The Bucs and Raiders are entwined far beyond just Gruden. Middleton is carrying baggage of his own into this game. He thinks Bucs GM Rich McKay ran him out of Tampa Bay and hasn't made much secret of his disdain for his former team. ``My best memory of Tampa Bay? Leaving!'' he said in the din of the Raiders' locker room. ``Seeing [Tampa] in my rearview mirror.''

Raiders defensive lineman Reagan Upshaw was a No. 1 draft choice of the Bucs, but never amounted to much in Tampa Bay and eventually was traded to Oakland. ``I have a lot of feelings about Tampa but I'm not going to let them out right now,'' he said. I still have a lot of friends from there. They've got some good guys there - Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch. It'll be a fun week. Chucky's a good coach, too. I've got a lot of positive feelings about him.''

And although he has no direct connection to the Bucs, ponder this image: Sebastian Janikowski loose in Tijuana. It's just a short designated driver ride south from the Super Bowl headquarters in San Diego. That has nothing to do with anything. It's just an image too good to ignore. This is the Raiders' first trip to the Super Bowl since the 1984 game. In Tampa. They were the Los Angeles Raiders then, but not much else about this organization has changed. The Raiders still believe football is best played in a back alley. They still favor the pass.

You know how much the experts like to poke at the Bucs' running game, but consider this: On Sunday, Raiders running backs got the ball just nine times for 48 yards. Quarterback Rich Gannon ran eight more times for 41. That was it. They put the ball up 41 times, and Gannon was not sacked. He threw three touchdown passes, but the team Gannon will face next Sunday is known for playing a little better defense than Tennessee.

At first glance, this looks like a team the Bucs should beat. Gannon is mobile, but so are Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick, and they'll have the same view of this game as you will. And the Bucs should be able to score on this Raiders defense, which isn't fearsome. By the way, that may be the last bit of actual game analysis you get this week. This is the one everyone wanted. It's a game of subplots stacked to the moon - Chucky, Al Davis, Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, Warren Sapp, Keyshawn. There may not be enough microphones to go around in San Diego. We'll find out soon enough. For now, it's enough to know it's actually happening. ``If we could have chosen someone to play, it would have been the Bucs,'' Upshaw said. ``And what better place to play them than the Super Bowl?''

Joe Henderson The Tampa Tribune 17 January 2003