THE DEFENSE RESTS
Hello, Steel Curtain. Make room please. And you 1985 Bears? Scoot over. Baltimore Ravens? You guys were good a couple of years ago, but ... When the talk turns to the best defenses ever, the Bucs have to be included now. They'll have to talk about Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp. They'll have to talk about Dexter Jackson and Dwight Smith, too. They'll have to talk about how they stopped the Oakland Raiders, the league's No. 1 offense, in Super Bowl XXXVII, and now they have the championship that is supposed to be the ultimate mark of excellence. There might be Raider Nation, but it's a Buc World this morning.
They beat the Raiders 48-21 Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium. They took Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, the NFL's MVP, and made him suffer. They intercepted five of his passes. Three were run back for touchdowns. That's right. The Bucs defense scored more touchdowns than the go-go Raiders' offense. One of Oakland's three TDs came on a blocked punt. ``They had a very good scheme,'' Gannon said. ``It was a very, very long night for the Raiders.''
No longer than it was when the Bucs shut down Brett Favre, Michael Vick or Donovan McNabb. It was really business as usual. Someone asked Sapp if the Bucs have the best defense ever, better than the Bears, Ravens, Steelers. Better than all of them. ``I don't know,'' he said. ``But we possess a championship, so we deserve to be spoken in the same sentence.''
Oakland's offense is built around short stuff, 4- and 5-yard dump passes that turn into 15-yard gains. Except that no one does that against the Bucs. Gannon was sacked three times in the first half; he was put down only twice in the Raiders' previous two postseason games. By halftime it was 20-3. Even Al Davis probably didn't believe the Raiders could come back from that.
The Bucs had insisted all week they couldn't be recognized among the NFL's all-time great defenses until they had a championship. Not only do they have that now, they acquired it with a suffocating postseason run that deserves to be listed among the best ever. They stopped San Francisco. They stopped Philadelphia. They stopped Oakland.
Jerry Rice didn't get his first catch until 3:30 remained in the third quarter. The Raiders trailed by 31 at the time. ``I give a lot of credit to Jerry and Tim [Brown] for what they've done in their careers,'' cornerback Ronde Barber said. ``But quite honestly, I don't think they belonged on the same field with us [tonight] the way we played.''
The Bucs' foundation from the beginning was defense. Even through 0-26, people used to talk about the defense. When the Bucs morphed from awful to playoff regulars, defense took them there. Never all the way, because the offense didn't hold up its end. Now that it's all changed, the defense we've come to know so well can come inside the house. We can legitimately compare: Brooks, Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary, or Ray Lewis? Lynch, or Mel Blount? Chicago's 46 defense, or Tampa Bay's Cover 2? Who do you like? ``We have 11 guys, dynamic playmakers as Jon [Gruden] likes to call them,'' Barber said.
Pittsburgh and Chicago have defensive cornerstones in the Hall of Fame. This win almost assuredly means Lee Roy Selmon, the Bucs' lone representative in Canton, will have company now. Brooks, Lynch, Sapp. This win was that big. This was the way it had to be. For the Bucs to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy, the defense had to do what it did Sunday night. It didn't just stop the Raiders, it buried them. We've seen it all season. Heavens, we've seen it for years. We saw it in '79. We saw it '99. We saw it in this game.
The Bucs won more than a championship; they won a legacy. It was a here-and-now statement that will echo for the ages. They wanted to be considered among the best defenses of all time. Who's going to argue now?