Finally In Sync
Since the first botched snap of training camp, Tampa Bay's offensive linemen found themselves ensnared as unwilling contestants in a depressing game show. The Weakest Link.
When national pundits analyzed the Bucs roster, strong defense was a given. Brad Johnson was a savvy, veteran quarterback and the receiving corps appeared deep and effective.
Coach Jon Gruden was a brilliant offensive mind. But as offensive line coach Bill Muir began watching his unit practice in the heat of Lake Buena Vista, he quickly realized the gravity of the task at hand.
``People can call us below average the rest of my NFL career, I don't care anymore,'' crowed second-year right tackle Kenyatta Walker on Sunday night. ``Let them all talk, because I'll have a Super Bowl ring on my finger.''
No player emphasizes the progress of Muir's maligned unit more than Walker. After struggling through a difficult rookie season, the first-round pick out of Florida was shifted to the right side in 2002. And promptly benched. Walker didn't suit up for the Sept. 8 opener against New Orleans, and he didn't handle the humbling lesson well. But with the help of mentor Lomas Brown, Walker grew up a bit and reclaimed his starting job.
Injuries to guards Kerry Jenkins and Cosey Coleman interrupted the continuity, but center Jeff Christy and left tackle Roman Oben were mainstays as the running game struggled for two months. ``I guess it happened right after the bye week,'' Christy said of the turnaround. ``We played Minnesota and we were able to do some things. I guess we just kind of built on that and got better each game. It's really all you can ask for an individual or a group to get better and I think we showed progress.''
Throughout Tampa Bay's dominating three-game playoff run, the men up front provided a stirring story line. Except for some brief breakdowns against the Eagles and Raiders, Johnson had ample time to throw. He was sacked only once in 99 postseason pass attempts. In Sunday's 48-21 rout of the Raiders, the line opened up consistent holes for Michael Pittman, who ran for 124 yards. The teacher was impressed. ``This is the greatest day of my life,'' said Muir, hired away from the Jets a week before Gruden arrived at One Buc Place. ``These guys up front did everything we asked them to do. It's a very tenacious group with a goal to excel. They stood the course and I'm very proud of what they accomplished.''
Coming off a superb effort against Philadelphia's Hugh Douglas, Oben neutralized Oakland edge rusher Regan Upshaw on Sunday. Christy and Jenkins pulled out effectively on sweeps and Coleman sealed off 350-pound Sam Adams. ``I think we all played well at the right time,'' Oben said. ``The key was we never got down on each other, no matter what was being said about the offensive line. You can't let what someone says in the newspaper affect how you think about yourself.''
Mike Alstott chipped in some key blocks, but it was the five men in front of Johnson who kept the peace Sunday against Oakland's aggressive defense. ``Credit should go to our offensive line,'' Alstott said. ``They've been taking a lot of heat all year for not producing 100-yard rushers and not putting together a balanced attack. The offensive line really came to play today.''
The Bucs became the first team since the 1970 Baltimore Colts to win a Super Bowl without averaging at least 100 yards on the ground. The rushing numbers in the second half of the season were markedly improved, and the pass protection down the stretch tightened around Johnson. ``We approached every game like, `Hey, no one's giving us a chance,' '' Christy said. ``And that kind of hurts your pride. If it doesn't hurt your pride, you shouldn't be playing the game. If they don't respect us now, they never will.''
Each lineman credits Muir for never losing faith, even when the stat sheet offered little cause for optimism. ``Bill did such a good job of sticking with us,'' said Jenkins, signed as a free agent after playing for Muir with the Jets. ``All of us put in extra effort and it paid off. It was a bit ugly at times during the season, but look at us now.''
Muir isn't overly superstitious, but he has come to trust in good karma. ``I had a good feeling about this game,'' he said. ``After we posed for our team picture Saturday, I realized this is my 37th year in coaching. We were heading into Super Bowl XXXVII. I said to myself, that's a heck of a good omen. And what made it even better was when my guys went out and made it happen.''