SAN DIEGO — We can all retire now. Tampa Bay has won a Super Bowl. The Red Sea has parted, elephants can fly, insurance companies are cutting their rates in half, and Michael Jackson will win Man of the Year. A franchise that once dressed like a Creamsicle was draped Sunday night in an NFL championship, having gutted the Oakland Raiders the way a hungry bear guts a fish.
They blitzed. They sacked. They intercepted. They went home with a trophy. Somebody check for tire marks. This wasn’t a game, it was a runover, a monster truck show with a Buccaneer driving. I’m still waiting for the Oakland Raiders and their No. 1-ranked offense to actually, you know, play some football. They were shut up, shut down, and, when it counted, shut out. And it only proves what nobody wants to hear: Tough defense beats flashy offense almost every time.
And when it does, it’s ugly.
Oh, yes, this was an ugly Super Bowl. The first half was like watching a nervous kid take his driving test. Stop. Start. Three turnovers. Three sacks. If you listened carefully, you could hear fans saying, “What time does Shania Twain come on?”
The second half wasn’t much better — unless you like runaways. The Bucs disrupted Oakland’s rhythm like a dancer knocking over the drum set. They sacked again. Intercepted again. Scored again. Tampa was so dominant, that after a while it was embarrassing, these supposedly mighty Raiders looking like kids trying to rob a bank with squirt guns.
Their final memory will be a recurring nightmare, cornerback Dwight Smith taking another interception — the Bucs’ fifth of the game — all the way for a touchdown. Forty-eight points? By the Buccaneers?
That’s what happens when a defense is faster than an offense. Oakland’s offensive line couldn’t hold the rushing tide of Tampa Bay defenders. Rich Gannon couldn’t fool the Tampa Bay defensive backs, and the Raiders’ point-scoring machine sputtered, spit and went up in smoke.
In truth, the most interesting thing to happen to the Raiders happened before the coin was tossed. Their starting center, a Pro Bowl player named Barret Robbins, was sent home after he didn’t show for Saturday’s practice. He couldn’t be found until that evening. There were rumors of him being in Tijuana, Mexico, of being too inebriated to check in, of being in the hospital. Maybe in the old days this would have been “Raider mystique.” But when your veteran quarterback is as straight as an accountant and your star receivers are aging gentlemen, all it does is mess things up.
“He did it to himself,” said Raiders running back Tyrone Wheatley.
But when the man snapping the ball disappears on game day, things get rattled.
Not that the Raiders needed help in that department. From the start it was clear that all those AFC defenses they peppered with dinky passes were no match for the swift smash of Tampa Bay. Gannon, for most of the game, couldn’t do anything. I mean nothing. He was chased and erased. All season, he tacked pinball-like numbers on the opposition.
On Sunday, he went “tilt.”
“I was watching TV this week and seeing experts predict the MVPs,” said safety Dexter Jackson, who won that award with two of Tampa’s five interceptions. “We knew Gannon threw a lot of passes. I told my friends, ‘I can be MVP of this thing if we get some picks.’
“I think this defense is one of the best of all time.”
Well, it was certainly the best of the 2002-03 season. How can you describe the total domination Sunday? Think of Oakland as a mosquito and Tampa as a big can of Raid.
That was the Super Bowl.
Consider this: Oakland’s first five possessions ended with a sack, a sack, a deflected pass and two interceptions. And, like the Baltimore Ravens two years ago, Tampa’s defense was so good, it lifted the offense. So here was quarterback Brad Johnson, on the money, and receiver Joe Jurevicius catching big passes, and Michael Pittman, maybe the least known name on an unknown offense, gaining over 100 yards and looking more like Marcus Allen than any of the Raiders.
The Bucs marched through Oakland’s exhausted defense like, well, like Oakland used to march through everyone else. And finally, when Oakland coughed up its final gasp, pulling to within 13 points, the Tampa offense converted a crucial third down, scored two touchdowns on interception returns, and next thing you know, Johnson was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and Warren Sapp, the league’s biggest talker without a title, had a ring to match his zing.
Heaven help us all.
“We didn’t really plan on shutting them down completely,” Sapp said afterward, smiling broadly. “But that’s what we did. We do what we do!”
How strange is this? Tampa Bay, Super Bowl champs? Remember, this was the expansion team to end all expansion teams. This was a franchise that lost its first 26 games, a franchise that saw Bo Jackson, its No. 1 pick, say “No thanks, I’d rather play baseball,” a franchise that was known for years as
Heck, as late as last February, Tampa Bay was still embarrassing itself with a vacant head coaching office, having fired Tony Dungy, only to see one candidate after another sink by circumstance. In the end, the Bucs owners had to pay $8 million and four draft picks just to GET a coach.
But they got the right one.
Jon Gruden, Oakland’s ex, did what Dungy couldn’t — namely, get the team to score some points — and the combination of a fresh face and fresh fire lifted this club over the final hurdle.
“The guy is contagious,” Johnson said of his coach. “We love playing football for him so much, we want to play through January and February and up to mini-camp.”
Good luck trying to find an opponent.
So that’s that. Season ends. And we can quit now. We’ve seen it all. Dogs can talk. It snows at the equator. Ice cream has no calories. And for the next 12 months, we’ll be saying “The World Champion Tampa Bay Bucs.” Could anything in this world be stranger?
Well. Maybe one thing. “World Champion Detroit Lions.”
But I said this world.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).