The Bucs, baby

Of fathers and sons, Gruden and Callahan, and why the key to the Super Bowl may be what happens when the NFL's best offense and defense are both on the sidelines.


King Kaufman
January 26, 2003 2:38AM (UTC)

We've been waiting and waiting, and at last the big day is almost upon us. The anticipation is so great that the heart actually races at times. The mind wanders, we daydream about the possibilities. But even as we watch the clock slowly grind its way to the appointed hour, we already know one thing:

It's a boy.

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Wait, what did you think I was talking about?

Back in Joe Montana's heyday, Glenn Dickey, a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, criticized the 49ers quarterback for impregnating his wife at a time when she would be due right around the Super Bowl. I guess I haven't taken the awesome responsibility of my job any more seriously than that bum Montana did his. Neither has Raiders wide receiver and future Hall of Famer Tim Brown, due to become the father of twins any day as the weekend began.

Even as the wife and I were doing that thing people do to try to become mommies and daddies, with the April sun shining and the birds chirping in the leafy trees outside, I knew that if it all worked out, this would happen. Super Bowl XXXVII, thanks to the trains-on-time efficiency of the NFL, will begin precisely at 6:XVIII EST Sunday. Our son, blissfully unconcerned with punctuality, as he will remain forever if he takes after his dad, will be here when he gets here, which could be any minute now. But the smart bet is for sometime close to 6:XVIII EST Sunday, just to keep the old man from watching the game.

I know I should have resisted back in April. "But baby," I should have said, "my readers will need to know whether I think the Buccaneers will stick to their cover-two scheme against the Raiders or go with more blitzes and man-to-man. I can't let my precious Super Bowl prognosticating time be put in danger by the demands of being a birthing partner. I'm sorry, but we'll just have to put the French maid costume away until next month."

Or maybe I should have said nothing and just changed out of the costume. Whatever. What's done is done.

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And now I'm in that position of making facile statements about how something like having a child sure can put a thing like a football game into perspective. Because, gee, I didn't know that before, that a football game might not be the most important thing in the world.

Liberated by this new understanding of the meaninglessness of it all, I'm unafraid to tell you that I'm picking the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to beat the slightly favored Oakland Raiders, and Junior is making the same pick. I can tell from the way he's moving around in there. If we're right we'll look smart (and one of us will look cute and make little gurgling noises). If we're wrong, we'll say, "Hey, there are more important things than a football game." Denial and self-justification will be our first bonding experiences.

The upset-filled regular season has given way to an almost upset-free postseason that has produced a dandy of a Super Bowl matchup, pitting the best offense in the league, Oakland, against the best defense in the league, Tampa Bay. It's like a classic boxer vs. puncher tilt, but with a twist, because the Raiders can play a little defense and the Bucs can play a little offense. And don't ask me which is the boxer and which is the puncher. Having a baby can sure put a thing like whether an analogy makes sense into perspective.

While all the attention is being paid to that Raiders offense vs. Bucs defense battle, close to half the game will be played on the other side of the ball, and that might be the part of the game that decides things. Tampa Bay's offense is hardly a thing to behold, but it's efficient and safe. Quarterback Brad Johnson isn't going to make anyone forget Dan Marino as a pocket passer, but he can make the throws to exploit a defense's weaknesses, and he rarely gets picked off (six interceptions to go with 22 touchdown passes this year). His receivers are as slow as a first labor, but they don't have to be all that fast to beat the Raiders' secondary, which isn't all that good, especially with cornerback Charles Woodson, its best cover man, hobbled.

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Johnson, a 34-year-old journeyman who's also spent time with Minnesota and Washington, has had a fine season in new coach Jon Gruden's West Coast offense, and he seems ripe to be one of those hero-for-a-day guys that Super Bowls produce. His counterpart, Most Valuable Player Rich Gannon, gets a lot more attention, and that's as it should be. Gannon's a better player, though it shouldn't be forgotten that when he and Gruden joined forces in Oakland, Gannon was a 33-year-old journeyman who'd spent time with Minnesota, Washington and Kansas City. But I have a feeling that Johnson will make high-percentage pass after high-percentage pass, that the Bucs will move the ball steadily down the field, and that the Raiders backs' gambling style will lead to one or two big plays. This offense put up 20 points against Philadelphia last week, don't forget, and Oakland's defense isn't Philadelphia's. Brad Johnson, of all people, for Super Bowl MVP.

Johnson will have to be scary accurate -- Gannonesque, if you will -- to keep drives moving and thus keep the Raiders' offense off the field as much as possible, which is necessary for two reasons. First, Gannon has a mess of weapons -- Jerry Rice, Papa Tim Brown, Jerry Porter, Charlie Garner, Doug Jolley and, if no one's open, Gannon himself as a nifty scrambler -- and even the best defense in the world can't keep them down forever. Second, the one weakness the Bucs have on defense is that they're small up front. Over time, the Raiders' huge offensive line will wear them down. The longer the Raiders have the ball, the more likely they'll be able to pound away with the speedy Garner and his crew of bruising backfield mates, Tyrone Wheatley, Zack Crockett and Jon "Bloody Forehead" Ritchie.

Late in the year the Miami Dolphins, who are also undersized and speedy on defense, showed how to slow this offense down. They jammed the receivers at the line of scrimmage and put pressure on Gannon, and threw off the Raiders' timing. Oakland wasn't able to glide downfield on dink-and-dunk underneath passes. It sounds simple, but it's easier said than done. You have to have the horses. The Buccaneers do. Their defensive backs, particularly Ronde Barber, who had a monster game in Philadelphia last Sunday, are talented enough to cover Oakland's receivers man to man, which will allow the Bucs to blitz.

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Between the blitzers and speedy outside rusher Simeon Rice, the Buccaneers should be able to keep Gannon off balance and possibly force some turnovers, but the Raiders will get their points. The big questions: Will the Bucs be able to keep them from getting an insurmountable number of points, and maybe put up a score of their own, and will Tampa Bay's offense do its share?

Special teams seem about even: Good placekickers, mediocre everything else, though the Raiders made a nice play rushing the punter against Tennessee last week.

And that brings us to the coaches, which allows me to return to what's passing for a theme, fathers and sons. Unless you've spent the week cramming on "What to Expect When You're Expecting" or something, you know that Gruden, the Bucs' coach, was the Raiders' coach until last offseason, when Tampa Bay gave Oakland four high draft picks and $8 million in hopes that he'd come over and install an offense, which he did, though it continues to be limited by personnel. The Raiders replaced him with a Gruden protégé, offensive line coach Bill Callahan.

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ESPN expert Joe Theismann, who like all seven of his fellow ESPN experts incorrectly picked the Eagles to beat the Bucs last week, not that I get any enjoyment out of pointing that out, wrote this week that "Gruden's knowledge of Callahan and the Raiders tips the scales in his favor. "

He went on to talk about Gruden's knowledge of the Raiders' players and schemes. Fair enough, but when it comes to the Gruden-Callahan relationship, don't you think Callahan has the edge? As the underling, the student, Callahan had one boss, Gruden, who in turn had lots of underlings. Which of the two do you think spent more time studying the other? Or let me put it this way: Who knows more about the other, you or your boss? Or, to ask it another way, the father or the grown son?

While you ponder that, I'll tell you that it probably doesn't matter. Both coaches have shown themselves to be well-prepared and creative. I doubt that one will outcoach the other. It'll come down to the players. I think the Bucs have the players on defense to slow the Raiders down sufficiently to give the offense a chance to win.

But I won't exactly be surprised if I'm wrong. The Raiders and Buccaneers are so evenly matched that an upset isn't really possible.

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Except this one: I get to see the game.


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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