Head Coach Tony Dungy is greeted warmly by a huge welcoming crowd
An estimated crowd of 3,000 fans awaited the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the team's training complex Sunday night, eager to cheer on the NFC Central Division Champions. Just after 10:00 p.m., the Bucs returned home from their weekend in Chicago, a business trip that produced the desired results.
By dismissing the Bears, 20-6, Tampa Bay ran its final regular-season record to 11-5, staying one game ahead of the surging Minnesota Vikings for the division crown. It is Tampa Bay's first division title in 18 years, and the excitement of the overflowing crowd at One Buccaneer Place was mirrored by the players that afternoon. Though the team will get back to its ultimate quest of the Super Bowl on Monday, Sunday was a day to enjoy the fruits of its labors.
"Today, it didn't matter if it was cold," said S John Lynch after the game. "It didn't matter if we got down early. It didn't matter if we got ahead early. Whatever happened, we had to be on the top at the end. Even though we started 3-4 this year, we've achieved a lot. We may be celebrating in here right now, but the first thing everybody said was, 'We're not done yet.'"
As a seventh-year veteran, Lynch represents the somewhat small 'old guard' on a youthful team. Tampa Bay's starting quarterback, for instance, is a rookie, second-rounder Shaun King. Nevertheless, King can speak of this season's accomplishment in historical terms, as he is a St. Petersburg native and a lifelong fan of the Buccaneers. This could very well be seen as a dream come true for the hometown rookie, but at the moment he is viewing it through the fans' eyes.
"I'm really happy for the people of Tampa," said King. "They've supported us for a long time, even when we weren't really good. It feels very special to give the community something to cheer about."
Team Owner/President Malcolm Glazer, who was on hand in Chicago and in the postgame locker room celebration, had a similar reaction to King's. Glazer has engineered a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of the franchise since purchasing the team in 1995, and he was quick to pinpoint the contributions of the team's head coach and its loyal supporters. "Tony Dungy is a sterling person, a great leader and a great inspiration to the team," said Glazer after the Bucs' victory. "We're so proud that he is the coach of this team, and I'm sure that every player is proud to be working for him. And then you have the fans back in Tampa who are just so great. They come to the games and scream and yell and cheer. I don't know how many other cities have fans who are as loud and loyal as the people in Tampa."
And, as you would suspect, Dungy was quick to mention the pride he feels in his players, as he did when asked about the difference between this season and the Bucs' last playoff run in 1997. "It's a little different," said Dungy. "It's never the same as the first time around. The 1997 season was so special for us because we were young and it was new. But winning the division championship, doing something that hasn't been done in Tampa in so long, winning 11 games and breaking the franchise record…those are going to be some things that we'll never forget. I just think it's special for me that this team to come from 3-4, to lose two quarterbacks, to lose Jason Odom, our right tackle, to play some games without Warrick Dunn, to play a game without Warren Sapp, but all the way along to keep our focus and keep winning. I'm very proud of them."
Dungy would also be proud of the prevailing sentiment among his players in the locker room. Though there was jubilation over the accomplishment, and donning of NFC Central Division Champions hats, there was still focus on the task at hand. "We're happy with what we've accomplished so far," said RB Warrick Dunn. "But we know this is not the last step. We're going to enjoy this, take a week off from (playing) football and then get back to business."