Super Bowl 37 champs know how hard it is to repeat

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Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Times
·4 min read
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TAMPA — Talk to one member of the Super Bowl 37 champion Bucs, and the team was focused, prepared and motivated to defend its NFL title the following season.

“The minicamps were all tremendous,” quarterback Brad Johnson said. “The training camp was great. We did have to play a fifth (preseason) game over in Tokyo, Japan. That was another deal. But no, we came out and beat Philly on the first night 17-0. It was a heavyweight championship game to start the season.”

Talk to another, and players were selfish, hoping to cash in, undisciplined and unaware of the target on the back of their jersey.

“It was everything you could possibly imagine,” defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. “The whole thing about going through the championship, you find out what everybody is about after you win it. You figure out every qualm, every screwy thing about every one of your teammates. That’s why we went 7-9.”

One thing everyone agrees on is it began as well as could be expected.

The Bucs were the last Super Bowl team to have to open the following season on the road.

They had closed the Vet and then opened the Linc.

Having won the NFC Championship Game at Philadelphia in the final game at Veterans Stadium, the Bucs shut out the Eagles in the debut of Lincoln Financial Field to start the 2003 season.

They looked invincible in a rematch of the conference title game. Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius had two touchdown receptions, including one Globetrotter-esque catch where he tipped a pass over the head of a defender before cradling it in the end zone.

The defense went the first nine quarters of the season without allowing a touchdown.

But as Johnson is quick to remind everyone, “It’s so stinking hard to win a game. To ... win ... a … game.”

The wheels began to come off in a Week 2 overtime loss to the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.

Keenan McCardell caught a touchdown pass from Johnson on the final play of regulation to tie the game at 9. But Martin Gramatica’s point-after attempt was blocked — the third blocked kick of the game — sending it to overtime ,where the Bucs lost 12-9.

Perhaps more significantly, Jurevicius and fullback Mike Alstott were hurt on the same play in that game.

The Bucs righted the ship with a 31-10 win at Atlanta and led the Colts by 21 points with less than five minutes to play in the following game.

But Peyton Manning led Indianapolis to the greatest comeback in Monday Night Football history on Tony Dungy’s return to Tampa — on his birthday, no less.

Mike Vanderjagt kicked the game-winning 29-yard field goal in overtime. His first attempt from 40 yards was wide right, but Simeon Rice was penalized for “leaping.”

“We lose to Carolina and have the extra point (blocked),” Johnson said. “We lose Alstott and Joe on the same play.

“There three crazy games. We lost the Carolina game, we lost the Colts game and the Carolina game up there. We had two other close games with the Saints at home and the Falcons at home. We lost seven players, (including cornerback) Brian Kelly, (linebacker) Shelton Quarles, (and offensive linemen) Roman Oben and Kerry Jenkins.”

The Bucs lost receiver Keyshawn Johnson to insubordination. He was placed on the inactive list the final seven games of the season after getting into a personal snit with Jon Gruden over not being a bigger part of the offense.

They lost general manager Rich McKay, who astonishingly was allowed to leave after Week 15 to become the general manager of the NFL South rival Falcons, a team they played the next week and lost to, 30-28.

“We really were not prepared for every team to give us their best shot,” Sapp said. “You can ask (Derrick) Brooks. He’ll admit it. We really weren’t. I’m right there with him. I told him, ‘Dawg, we’re not ready for this. We’re not very good at this right now. We used to be the hunter. Now we’re the hunted, and we’re not reacting well to it at all.

“We were out there sniping at each other about nothing.”

The league was very different in 2003. Offseason workouts began in March. The Bucs weren’t particularly deep on the offensive side of the ball.

Alsttot, who injured his neck in that Week 2 collision with Jurevicius, played in only four games.

“Things just happen. It wasn’t anyone’s fault,” Johnson said. “We worked. We were prepared. We were focused. We lost three crazy games, we lost some players, and it snowballed.

“There’s only a handful of teams that repeated. There was no lack of work, no lack of focus. It just happened.”

It’s a cautionary tale for the 2021 Bucs, who will attempt to defend their Super Bowl 55 title.

However, Sapp notes one rather large difference between this Bucs team and the one he won a ring with.

“They’re led by Tom Brady,” Sapp said.