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Buc-ing The Trend

With Dungy at the Helm, Long-Suffering Buccaneers Are Now Scourge of NFL

September 19, 1997|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be staying at the Sheraton-Torrey Pines in La Jolla and practicing at UC San Diego for Super Bowl XXXII.

"Who knows?" said Chuck Nichols, president of the San Diego Super Bowl Host Committee. "Stranger things have happened."

Name one.

Mr. Nichols, we might learn there are martians living among us--maybe even playing for the Chargers if they ever open practices. Barry Switzer could earn coach-of-the-year honors, Mike Ditka might adopt Heath Shuler as his son, and who knows, Mr. Nichols, Green Bay might not win another game all year.

But even Stephen King lacks this kind of imagination: Tampa Bay's Trent Dilfer leads all NFC passers!

Strange, strange doings here in Florida: In his first 26 games, Dilfer threw 34 interceptions and only six touchdown passes. This season the former Fresno State hurler has three more touchdown passes and two fewer interceptions than Dan Marino--and a quarterback rating 39 points higher.

The world is about to end: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an organization with only three winning campaigns in its 21-year history, are favored--that is favored--by 3 1/2 points Sunday night to defeat Jimmy Johnson, Marino and the Miami Dolphins.

"What a wonderful story," said John McKay, former USC coach, who went 0-26 here before winning a game. "Yes, yes, an amazing story."

A modern-day fairy tale: In compiling a 64-159 record over the last 14 seasons, the Buccaneers have lost at least 10 games 13 times--failing to record a winning record since the 1982 strike-shortened season of nine games. They have not drawn enough fans in their last 16 home games to lift the TV blackout, but not only is this contest against the Dolphins sold out, scalpers are expected outside Houlihan's Stadium for the first time.

When these kinds of irregularities happen in government, they hire a special prosecutor: Tampa Bay is 8-2 in its last 10 games, 3-0 this season and no other team in the National Football Conference is undefeated, including the Green Bay Packers, who planned to go undefeated.

"We have the reputation of: 'Oh, they're Tampa Bay and they'll fold up eventually,' " said Tony Dungy, Buccaneer coach. "But I don't think that's going to happen. I would be surprised if we don't continue to improve."

Tampa Bay was 2-22 since 1991 in NFC Central road games, but this season it is 2-0 and 3-0 in conference play, which gives the Buccaneers the tiebreaking edge for home-field advantage come the playoffs. How often has the word "playoffs" been mentioned in the same sentence with Tampa?

Mr. Nichols, sir, nothing stranger has ever happened.

Maybe everyone should have seen it coming, the fact that the Buccaneers hired a Vulcan to become their head coach. OK, so maybe Tony Dungy only looks like a Vulcan with the Spock-like ears, but he's always so logical, methodical and collected, and until someone spotted him on the sideline smiling last week, well . . .

"I think initially because he's so cool and calm we were wondering: Shouldn't he be yelling at us a little more?" linebacker John Lynch said. "We learned quickly with his style, though, you can be successful. I mean it's almost prophetic in everything he says each week. He says, if we do this, this and that, we'll win, and you know what, we win."

Well . . . is it any wonder then that the Buccaneers' progress has come at warp speed?

"The danger could be in a situation likes ours where you haven't had much success that you think 3-0 is something to celebrate," Dungy said. "It's really not; it's less than one-fifth of the season. We had a three-game win streak last year, it just happened to come in the middle of the year, and we ended up 6-10. It's nothing more right now than the chance to say we're happy to be in first place and not be in last place."

The last time Tampa Bay opened a season 3-0, "My Sharona" was a No. 1 song. The Buccaneers actually started 5-0 in 1979 before finishing 10-6, advancing to the playoffs and eventually losing to the Rams in the NFC Championship game--so long ago that the Rams were still playing football in Los Angeles.

"It was kind of what these guys are feeling right now," former safety Mark Cotney, who played on that 1979 team, told the Tampa Tribune recently. "We'd been the doormat of the league so long, and all of a sudden you're not only the toast of Tampa, you're the toast of the NFL. It's a great feeling."

While Dungy tries to keep a grip on perspective, everyone else here is preparing to go bonkers. More than 70,000 fans will be waving "We Believe" signs at the Dolphins' game. Some of those fans were waiting at the Buccaneers' practice facility in the middle of the night a week ago to greet the team after its win in Minnesota.

The burnt orange uniforms that made the team stand out in defeat have been replaced by red, black and pewter.

"We're going to wear our pewter pants Sunday night," Dungy said. "I was lobbying for the red, but since we've become known as the Pewter Pirates we can't disappoint anybody."

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