Bitter End
They had you believing, didn't they? Had you believing that anything, even a trip to the Super Bowl, was possible. The Bucs defense was that good this season. It was that good again on Sunday, when it shocked a football nation and held one of the best offensive high-wire acts in NFL history to one touchdown. In the end, though, the Bucs as a whole were only good enough to dream. They were not good enough to convert the dream because they never could consistently convert third downs into extended scoring drives and turnovers into touchdowns.

That's how the epilogue to this season will read. In the aftermath of the Bucs" 11-6 loss to the Super Bowl-bound St. Louis Rams in the NFC Championship Game at the Trans World Dome, the Bucs (12-6) will continue to be viewed as half a team. They have the defense to warrant a trip to Atlanta and Super Bowl XXXIV, but their offense remains leagues below the rest of the great teams. "It's been there all along," said receiver Bert Emanuel, whose late fourth-quarter catch was over-ruled by the replay official, helping stop Tampa Bay's last chance at pulling the upset. "We've won games 6-3, 9-6, 13-10, and people had to be asking, "How long can they continue to do that? How long can you continue to put the defense in situations like that? Expect them to shine and to carry you?" " Emanuel said. "We were exposed today. That's the bottom line; we were exposed."

No individual was exposed more than rookie quarterback Shaun King. Without the adequate protection he got a week ago in a divisional playoff victory against the Redskins, King was hurried and harassed into several mistakes. He threw two interceptions, including one that set up the Rams" decisive touchdown. He took a couple of ill-advised sacks. And, in one crucial instance, he failed to get a play off on time, taking a delay of game penalty that dragged the Bucs out of field-goal range early in the fourth quarter.

"This was a tough place to play. It's a very loud place and that's tough on a young guy," Tony Dungy said of the Trans World Dome and King, who completed only 13 of 29 passes for 163 yards. "It was a pressurised situation and Shaun made some good throws and some good plays. He had a couple turnovers that we wish we had back, but that's the experience you have to gain from something like this and I think that eventually he'll be better for it."

Perhaps he will be. But for the Bucs to get better, for their offense to make the seemingly significant improvements necessary to take them to the championship level, they'll need to get improvement in areas other than just behind center. Though beat up, the offensive line was a source of constant concern all season, and it didn't change its image on Sunday. It gave the Rams two points when Pro Bowl center Tony Mayberry snapped the ball over King's head in the shotgun formation and into the end zone on the first play of the second quarter, and it failed to provide King with adequate pass protection or open the way for a sustained and effective rushing attack.

"We probably didn't run enough today to attain our goal," said Warrick Dunn, who combined with Mike Alstott (team-best 39 yards) and King (three yards) for just 77 yards rushing. "But I don't really know what happened. I don't really know why we couldn't run the ball. Right now I'm just in shock."

Shock was the state that most in the crowd of 66,496 was in until late in the fourth quarter, when Rams quarterback Kurt Warner finally found a hole in the defense and hit Ricky Proehl with a 30-yard touchdown pass that gave St. Louis (15-3) its winning edge. Until that point, the Bucs" top-ranked defense had allowed the Rams" top-ranked offense to tease the crowd with a couple of long drives. But all the Rams could show for their effort at that point was 117 yards of offense, a 24-yard Jeff Wilkins field goal and a 6-5 deficit on the scoreboard.

"We just couldn't finish our drives," said Warner, who now faces the Tennessee Titans in the Super Bowl. "We got some things going, but we could never finalise it. It seemed like everything we did, they knew what to expect. But that's been their character all year. They make teams drive the length of the field, and they think their scheme is better than your offensive scheme. You have to give them a lot of credit. But we were able to make one play and that made the difference."

That play came after the Bucs had forced the Rams into a third-and-four situation at the Tampa Bay 30 by stopping Marshall Faulk for no gain one play earlier. The Bucs, hoping to pressure Warner into a mistake, blitzed on the play, sending free safety Damien Robinson after his back side. Were it not for Proehl reading the blitz, it might have turned out completely different. Proehl was slated to run an 18-yard out pattern, but once he saw Robinson blitz, he changed up and ran a fade route into the end zone.

Warner, meanwhile, picked up Proehl heading for the end zone and threw for the corner, where Proehl caught the ball as it sailed through the web of cornerback Brian Kelly's arms. "Coming in here and doing what we did against the best offense since sliced bread is nice consolation," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "But we didn't make the play to win the ball game. We've got to find a way to make that play. That's the bottom line."

Then again, some might say it's a case of getting the offense to consistently make similar plays. "We've got to score points. That's the bottom line," Emanuel said. "We didn't do it today and so once again here comes the criticism, and that's the way it's always going to be as long as we keep coming up short."

Roy Cummings The Tampa Tribune January 2000