The Bucs tops here

Tribune pro football reporter

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are so fast, they got ahead of themselves Sunday while dismantling the Oakland Raiders 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII.

It took them less than three quarters to start celebrating after they built a 34-3 lead by intercepting NFL MVP Rich Gannon three times.

Just when it became 34-21 and the celebration started to look a bit hasty, the league's defensive player of the year, Derrick Brooks, quickly ended the modest Raiders uprising with a 44-yard interception for a touchdown, providing a fitting exclamation point for a defense that ranks with the great Bears defenses of the '80s.

With two seconds left, nickel back Dwight Smith returned his second interception for his second touchdown, making the final score more accurately reflect the domination.

Domination is the favorite word of Raiders 73-year-old owner Al Davis, but now it belongs to the youngest coach in the league, Jon Gruden, the coach Davis discovered then sold to Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer last year for a king's ransom.

"I want to thank coach Gruden," Glazer said. "He came from heaven and he took us to heaven."

Defying an NFL record-breaking season of offense, the Bucs preserved defensive football for another year, making the No. 1 offense in the league look old, fat, slow and confused, and turning the 39-year-old Gruden into the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl.

Gannon had thrown only 11 interceptions all season and postseason while completing the most passes in league history, but he had never seen the likes of Tampa Bay's defense. The Bucs' five interceptions were a Super Bowl record. Safety Dexter Jackson got the first two, setting the tone and winning an MVP trophy that should have been divided 11 ways.

Defensive end Simeon Rice had two sacks. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp pushed the pocket. Brooks had no trouble containing the Raiders' No. 1 weapon, runner-receiver Charlie Garner. Cornerback Ronde Barber handled receiver Jerry Porter. All-time great receiver Jerry Rice was shut out until the third quarter.

But to label the Bucs' victory solely a defensive effort would be as inaccurate as Gannon's passes. The offense molded by wonderboy Gruden and directed by forgotten quarterback Brad Johnson wore out Oakland's defense with touchdown drives of 77 and 89 yards that ended with passes to Keenan McCardell, one of Gruden's additions this season.

In his 12th NFL season and second with his third team, Johnson overcame an interception on his third play to complete 18-of-34 passes for 215 yards. He became the fourth quarterback in a row to rise from rejection to win a Super Bowl, following Tom Brady, Trent Dilfer and Kurt Warner.

Michael Pittman, an average running back signed by Gruden from Arizona this season, gained 124 yards on 29 carries as Gruden pounded the Raiders and kept the ball away from Gannon—mercifully, it turned out. The Bucs controlled the ball for 37 minutes 14 seconds.

Gruden downplayed his advantage in knowing the tendencies of his student, Oakland coach Bill Callahan, and his former players. But the Bucs played as if they were standing in both huddles.

Jackson pointed out his second interception came after he saw Gannon pump one way and throw the other. "Films show that's what he loves to do," Jackson said.

Gruden correctly called defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's defense "not good—great," as it validated the careers of perennial All-Pros Sapp, Brooks and safety John Lynch.

"We knew Gannon couldn't pump if our D-line was all over him," Lynch said. "You saw it from the start with Simeon."

Gruden again paid tribute to his predecessor, Tony Dungy, who brought the Bucs to respectability from an NFL laughingstock. Dungy was fired by the Glazer family after last season. Gruden cost them two No. 1 draft choices, two No. 2 draft choices and $8 million after Bill Parcells turned them down and Steve Mariucci showed no interest.

"I stayed away from the defense," Gruden said. "Tony Dungy did a great job and I reaped the benefits."

Callahan got the Raiders into the Super Bowl by opening up Gruden's offense, but Gruden pointed out that a pass-first offense is like raw meat to his defenders and Kiffin, who came to Tampa with Dungy in 1996.

"When they see a one-dimensional football team, that brings out the best in them," Gruden said. "They say, 'Bring it on,' because that's what they like to defend."

Even with Gannon's penchant for quick drops and timing passes, Rice and Sapp, end Greg Spires and tackle Chartric Darby were on the quarterback from the start. Gannon was sacked five times and finished with a lowly passer rating of 48.9, only slightly above the average rating the Bucs' defense forced on quarterbacks all season.

Gannon had set an NFL record with 10 games of more than 300 yards passing and a passer rating of 97.3. He finished Sunday 24-of-44 for 272 yards.

The Bucs were the first defense to lead the league in yards and points allowed as well as interceptions since the 1985 Bears.

"Going down as one of the great defenses of all time was not our goal," Lynch said. "Winning a world championship was our goal."

The Raiders turned Charles Woodson's interception of Johnson into the game's first three points, but the first 10 Raiders possessions went for 14, 1, 6, 8, 12, minus-1, 19, 4, 8 and 0 yards on the way to the 34-3 deficit.

Brooks had returned four turnovers for touchdowns during the regular season and the Bucs had returned five while leading the league in turnover ratio at plus-17. Until Sunday, the Raiders had been careful too, finishing at plus-12. They never expected such a collapse.

When Smith's 44-yard interception return immediately followed McCardell's second touchdown, the 14 points in 43 seconds seemed to deflate the Bucs as well as the strangely listless Raiders.

McCardell had scored with 30 seconds left in the first half to provide a 20-3 lead following a touchdown plunge by Mike Alstott and two field goals by Martin Gramatica.

The Bucs suspected the game was over then, as only one Super Bowl winner has come back from as much as a 10-point deficit.

But after it was 34-3, Gannon hit Porter for a 39-yard touchdown that needed a replay challenge to uphold. Then Eric Johnson returned a blocked Tom Tupa punt, and Gannon hit Rice for a 48-yard touchdown to make it 34-21. Had Callahan kicked extra points instead of prematurely going for two-point conversions that failed all three times, it would have been a 10-point game with two minutes left.

But this was never a what-if game.

Brooks' 44-yard interception return and Smith's 50-yarder with Gruden chasing him down the sideline in a fit of joy gave the Bucs and their remarkable coach a well-deserved last laugh on the Raider Nation they so convincingly crushed.

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