Great defenses don’t always stop great offenses in any sport, but in football above all others, if there’s a great defense playing in a big game, it’s not a bad risk to put the milk money down on it. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought a great defense to Super Bowl XXXVII Sunday, and the Oakland Raiders, great offense and all, were blown away.
The last three Super Bowls now have been won with defense. Two years ago it was the Baltimore Ravens, with a ridiculously stifling group that allowed 10.3 points a game, almost two points less than this year’s Bucs. Last year the New England Patriots, a good but not great defensive team for most of the year, used brute force and brilliant schemes to stop the St. Louis Rams’ high-octane offense.
And Sunday, after a sluggish start, the Buccaneers slugged their rival swashbucklers into the San Diego turf. It was an ass-kicking, a mugging, a victory so complete it made Tampa Bay’s throttling of Philadelphia in last week’s NFC Championship Game look like a nail-biter. The Bucs dominated so fully that they seemed to get a little bored in the second half, and the Raiders almost got back in the game. Not quite, but almost. The final score was 48-21. It wasn’t that close.
Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon, the regular-season most valuable player, threw five interceptions, a Super Bowl record. He didn’t choke under the big top, though. He played his game. He simply hadn’t seen anything quite like the Tampa Bay defense. The front four put enough pressure on him that the Bucs didn’t feel the need to blitz much, and when they did, they were able to stay in their zone coverage in the secondary. The speed of Tampa Bay’s defensive backs turned what had been Gannon completions in the first 18 games of the season into turnovers.
On the play that put the game away, Dwight Smith intercepted a pass intended for Jerry Rice in the left flat and returned it 44 yards, untouched, for a touchdown and a 34-3 lead with 4:47 to go in the third quarter. Against almost any defense, that’s a completion and maybe a 7-yard gain. Gannon hits that pass a dozen or more times a game. But the Bucs took the Raiders’ signature plays away all night. Until the game was out of reach, Rice, who had a 48-yard TD catch in garbage time, was silent. Tim Brown caught a 9-yard pass two minutes into the game and never touched the ball again except to make a fair catch on a punt. Charlie Garner was a nonfactor, rushing for 10 yards and catching seven passes for a ho-hum 51 more.
And then there was Gannon, who all year had been given time to throw by the Raiders’ excellent offensive line, and who had scrambled effectively when necessary, throwing on the move or running for first downs. Not this time. The Bucs pass rush, particularly cat-quick right end Simeon Rice, disrupted his rhythm and forced him out of the pocket on pass after pass. When Gannon looked downfield he saw receivers covered. He completed only 24 of 44. When he thought about running he had no place to go. He ran twice for 3 yards. He was sacked five times. An observer watching Gannon for the first time would have assumed he was a third-stringer thrown into the breech. This was the league MVP. That’s how good the Buccaneers’ defense was on Sunday.
The Bucs’ Rice, with five tackles and two sacks, was especially disruptive. Like most of Tampa Bay’s defensive front, he’s a bit undersized, listed at 268 pounds. But Oakland left tackle Barry Sims had no answer for his quickness. Rice beat him to the outside, beat him to the inside, beat him every way you can beat a guy. It will be July before Gannon will be able to stand in place without feeling as though Rice was bearing down on him from behind.
The Raiders finally got a touchdown on a 39-yard pass to Jerry Porter that was at first, correctly, ruled out of bounds but was overturned on replay. Maybe it was just me who got the feeling that in a close game, Porter’s juggle of the ball as he dragged his feet inbounds would have been taken into account and the initial incomplete ruling upheld. In any case, Oakland lined up for a two-point conversion. The Raiders didn’t block Rice at all, a novel strategy that resulted in approximately the same thing as blocking him had: Rice bearing down on Gannon’s back. Conversion failed.
It was already hard to remember by the third quarter, with the Raiders stepping in post holes and looking for a soft place to fall down, but Oakland actually led this game briefly. The Raiders got the game’s first break, an interception by Charles Woodson on a floater by Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson, who was hit by Regan Upshaw as he threw. Starting from the Tampa Bay 36, the Raiders made it as far as the 16 before Rice sacked Gannon at the 22 on third down.
Oakland kicked a field goal for a 3-0 lead, but the Raiders, significantly, hadn’t been able to score a touchdown even with a short field. The Bucs were down, but the Raiders hadn’t proved their No. 1 offense could move the ball against the No. 1 defense. They never would. The next nine times they touched the ball, the Raiders failed to get a first down seven times, and managed to move the chains only once on each of the other two possessions. They gained 64 yards on 29 plays and they turned the ball over three times. By the time they managed a sustained drive, late in the third period, they were down by 31 and the Bucs were already thinking about their victory parade.
In the meantime, Dexter Jackson had earned the game’s MVP award by picking off two passes, the first setting up the Bucs’ go-ahead field goal, the second setting up, after a trade of punts, their first touchdown and a 13-3 lead.
But naming an MVP in this game was like naming the most valuable drop of water in a tidal wave. This was mob rule, a team clubbing. The Buccaneers defenders were so good they not only stopped the Raiders offense, they outscored it, 21-15. (Oakland scored a touchdown on a blocked punt.) The Tampa Bay offense was its usual efficient, unspectacular self: 365 yards, 24 first downs, four sustained drives, 27 points, 10 of them set up by great field position. The Buccaneers were good defensively for the last five years under former coach Tony Dungy, but couldn’t get past the NFC Championship Game. They brought in former Raiders coach Jon Gruden last offseason to get the other half of the game going, and he did.
That was only the last piece of the puzzle, though. Sunday’s game proved it again: Quarterbacks and running backs win the MVP awards and get the girl in the last reel, but when they’re hoisting a championship trophy, it’s usually because a defense has handed it to them.