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Super Bowl: Buccaneers circumvent paper trail

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

SAN DIEGO -- The paper champions have arrived on a float of emotion to a place they've never been.

Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Mike Alstott, Ronde Barber, Keyshawn Johnson, etc. All those Pro Bowl players finally made it to a Super Bowl.

Not that they have Steelers safety Lee Flowers to thank for their first Super Bowl berth, but eradicating the mocking title he bequeathed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was as satisfying as the last warm shower in the visiting locker room at Veterans Stadium.


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"Me and Brooks and Lynch were the last ones in the shower in Philadelphia after the game," Sapp said yesterday, recalling the Buccaneers' 27-10 upset victory Sunday in the NFC championship game. "It was a great feeling after all the talk over the years that we were paper champions. We were standing in that shower and realized we finally made it."

The paper champions talk started Oct. 21, 2001, the day the Steelers went to Tampa and upset the Buccaneers, 17-10. That's when Flowers issued his famous "they ain't nothing but paper champions" quote that wound up in sound bite overdrive. Anytime the Buccaneers faltered, there was Flowers on the screen mocking them as if they had just emerged from Burger King wearing cheap cardboard crowns.

Yesterday, only their jerseys, and not their faces, were red as the Buccaneers soaked in the sun and the hype of their first Super Bowl media day.

And the bombastic Sapp could not help himself.

"Hey," Sapp snapped, staring into the cameras from a podium at Qualcomm Stadium, "how you doin', Lee? Hope you're having fun sitting at home."

They are no longer paper champions, no more the Yuckaneers, not the laughing penny stock of the National Football League at the moment. Tampa Bay is still owned by the family that can't shoot straight, but the Glaziers -- Malcolm and his three executive vice-president sons, Bryan, Joel and Ed -- have been transformed to Californ-eye-aaa like a wayward bullet that unleashed a bubbling crude.

This is the franchise that lost its first 26 games, that had losing seasons from 1983-96. Brooks, the NFL's defensive player of the year at linebacker, remembers the last time the Buccaneers came to San Diego in 1996. They were the butt of radio disc jockey jokes.

Brooks, Lynch, Sapp and a few others decided to change things.

"We were saying we were going to be the foundation to turn this thing around," Brooks said.

They did that in '97, making the playoffs in Tony Dungy's second year as the Buccaneers' coach.

But coaching the Buccaneers into the playoffs four out of five years wasn't enough for the Glaziers, so they fired Dungy and hired Bill Parcells. At least they thought they did, except for the second time, Parcells had snookered the Buccaneers into believing they had hired him only to have him back out at the last minute.

Embarrassed, the Buccaneers then were plundered for $8 million and four draft picks, two in the first round and two in the second, by the Raiders to get Coach Jon Gruden.

And so they are here, reducing to five the number of pre-1995 NFL teams that still haven't reached a Super Bowl (Detroit, Arizona, Seattle, New Orleans and Cleveland).

"I think it's just sinking in right now as I'm talking to you guys, seriously," Alstott said yesterday. "We had a lot of guys in that locker room who believed in what needed to be done. That's all that mattered. It's kind of sinking in right now at the Super Bowl. It's an unbelievable feeling."

So unbelievable that even one of their best players, Lynch, did not think they would be here. Lynch, the NFL's preeminent strong safety, attended Torrey Pines High School in nearby Del Mar. Lynch and his brother-in-law, Steelers tight end John Allred, made plans for a big family get-together this week in his hometown for the Super Bowl.

"I made those plans with the thought in mind that I wouldn't be playing in the game," Lynch admitted. "Fortunately, I do it with my brother-in-law and unfortunately the Steelers didn't make it. But he's there to take care of things."

He can pass out the paper champions plates and dine on crow for his teammate's words. But not all of the Buccaneers hold a grudge against Flowers.

"It's just a guy expressing his feelings," said former Pro Bowl center Jeff Christy, a 10-year NFL veteran who played for Freeport High School and Pitt. "That's the way he felt. He felt very strongly about it. I don't think it takes anything away from it. It is what it is. He said it. I remember before the game this year, someone asked if he regretted it and he said no."

Flowers and his teammates then went out and beat the Buccaneers in Tampa again, 17-7, Dec. 23. That loss knocked the Buccaneers out of a chance to get home-field advantage throughout in the playoffs, which appeared to be important since they had never won a road playoff game.

But after upsetting the Eagles in Philadelphia and taking a warm shower, the Buccaneers are getting a laugh on Flowers, although not necessarily the last one when it comes to their paper championship.

"Going out and winning this game on Sunday," Brooks said. "That's the only way we can squash that term."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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