DE Chidi Ahanotu has seen his team climb out of holes to get back on top on numerous occasions
He has seen 5-1 and he has seen 1-5. He's seen everything in between.
Though he just turned 30 four days ago, and though he is clearly in the prime of his career, defensive end Chidi Ahanotu is basically an elder statesman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Of the current Buccaneers, only tight end Dave Moore has been around longer. Moore showed up in November of 1992. Ahanotu was drafted the following spring. He and safety John Lynch are the only players remaining from that draft or any one earlier.
So you can understand the stoic way in which Ahanotu faced the media on Sunday concerning the Buccaneers' .500 record. While a 3-3 start less than halfway into the season is no disaster, it is less than what this team expected by week seven. Ahanotu, who speaks in even, measured tones and seems to have a locker room demeanor reflective of the Buccaneers' poised head coach, Tony Dungy, clearly remained confident about the 2000 season.
Because the average age in the locker room is the second youngest in the NFL, Ahanotu thinks of the team as one that still requires some molding. Still, this group has been through similar situations and come out on top.
"We've just had different challenges and adversities we've had to deal with that a seasoned, stable team would not have to deal with," said Ahanotu, referring to the team's seemingly annual troubles in October. "That leaves a little shakiness. But the foundation that Tony's laid out and our principles as far as how we approach the game lends itself for us to bounce back, to have a solid season, to get over all the early bumps in the season and then have the longevity for the whole, entire season. You look up and say, 'Hey, we got over that.' That's the kind of character that this team and the people who make it up have. We'll be alright.
And the Bucs will be alright if they can rediscover the magic that allowed them to win eight of their last nine last year and four of their last five in 1998. That and a penchant for fourth-quarter victories had become hallmarks of this team before the recent stretch of last-minute losses.
"When we win like that, we pride ourselves on it, because that's not an easy thing to do," said Ahanotu. "It's easy when you blow people out, and we wish they were all like that, but the hard ones, you really pride yourselves on those things. Winning in the fourth quarter, coming back from behind, getting over 3-4 starts, 3-3 starts…that builds character. That's what we've done here. A lot of teams wouldn't be able to come out of it, would start cutting people, getting desperate and the whole nine. We don't do that here. We attack the problem, and we just have to execute better."
When they're rolling, the Buccaneers seem to have a different star every week. Shaun King, Mike Alstott, Warren Sapp, Warrick Dunn, Steve White, John Lynch, Martin Gramatica…it seemed like everyone took a turn down the stretch last season. They had begun the same trend with a 3-0 start this year, alternately relying on Sapp, Ronde Barber, Donnie Abraham, Alstott, et cetera, until the big plays dried up over the last three weeks.
"Each person on this team that knows he can make a difference puts it on his own and says, 'I have to do that, I have to make it happen,' said Ahanotu. "And I think you'll see that more often. The stars have to make the plays. In the last couple of games, we haven't been doing that, and other teams' stars have been. I think that's been the difference. It's a small margin, but it's big when you look at the final result."
So Ahanotu is confident the Bucs will forge another winning streak, beginning on Thursday at home. Though he wouldn't directly address whether the schedule is favorable for the Bucs in the coming months, it's a fact that five of the team's next seven games are at home. That's a plus for a team that has won 15 of 19 games (including postseason) in Raymond James Stadium.
"That's one of the things we've built as a team, winning at home," said Ahanotu. "We pride ourselves on that. It's important. You'd like to say you're not going to lose any at home, because it's so hard to win on the road. We love this community and we don't want to let the community down, not at home."