Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Deep SI

Tampa Bay fans may want to take a deep breath before reading Sports Illustrated’s prediction for the 2000 Bucs

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The additions of Jeff Christy (left) and Randall McDaniel to the Bucs' front line played a part in Dr. Z's assessment

Okay, please be calm. You have one day, two tops, to gather yourself and take this news with composure.

That's how long it will take the current issue of Sports Illustrated to hit newsstands and mailboxes across the Bay area. As it is the magazine's annual NFL Preview issue, Buc fans are likely to skip directly to the league section.

And that's where they'll find football writer Paul Zimmerman's predictions for the upcoming season. We'll spare you the suspense:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers…14-2…Super Bowl Champions.

Tiger Woods, not a football player, graces the magazine's cover, an indication of the golfing prodigy's unbelievable prowess. Inside, however, the Bucs are king. Two teams are pegged for 14-2 marks by 'Dr. Z' – the Bucs and the St. Louis Rams. In the playoffs, the magazine predicts a first-round bye, a win over the Eagles in the playoff round and a bit of revenge for Tampa Bay against the Rams in the NFC Championship Game.

Dr. Z's Super Bowl prediction clearly gives a lot of weight to the Buccaneers' defense: Tampa Bay 17, Tennessee 13.

As you would expect, players in the Bucs' locker room on Wednesday weren't exactly swept up in the hype when informed of Sports Illustrated's opinion. DT Warren Sapp, for instance, shrugged off the news, but allowed a little smile to grace his face. He did concede that Dr. Z's 14-2 record prediction had a nice ring to it.

"It ain't a bad number," said Sapp with a laugh.

ESPN The Magazine also shipped its NFL Preview issue this week, though it does not predict a playoff order or Super Bowl matchup. It does, however, tab Tampa Bay to win the NFC Central and gives them one of only four 'A' grades in the league (St. Louis, Washington and Indianapolis were all awarded As, the Bucs an A-).

ESPN The Magazine features Colts RB Edgerrin James on the cover of its preview issue, but contains inside a full-length feature on Buccaneers WR Keyshawn Johnson and shorter pieces on DT Warren Sapp and FB Mike Alstott.

Sports Illustrated's two-page write-up on the Buccaneers focuses heavily, and very favorably, on the team's rebuilt offensive line, which includes newcomers Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel. Specifically, it states the Bucs' goals upfront as threefold: cut down on sacks, open up running lanes outside and give QB Shaun King more time to set and throw in Les Steckel's newly-imported offense.

A quick glance at the Bucs' most recent preseason game, in New England, offers evidence that the Bucs are succeeding on all three fronts. Despite facing a defense that had racked up 12 sacks in three previous games, the Bucs kept the Patriots from getting to its quarterbacks even once. They have allowed just three sacks in three games. The running game picked up 125 yards, and though starters Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn were not in the game long enough to rack up flashy numbers, they were consistently able to get to the second wave of defense. And King, who has an 83.5 passer rating this preseason, had plenty of time to throw, particularly after play-action fakes.

Following the party line, however, Offensive Line Coach Chris Foerster preaches cautious optimism.

"In the preseason, statistics tend to be a little bit overrated," said Foerster. "While it's a good thing, we have to take it as it is. It is preseason. Hopefully, we can keep doing that into the regular season. If we've got three sacks four or five games into the regular season, I'll be happy with that."

Not that Foerster doesn't agree with the thought that the Bucs are improved up front. "We have two nice additions to the line," he said. "We've got the other guys maturing. We've got (Frank) Middleton back for another good year and he keeps getting better and more experienced. Jerry Wunsch and whoever our left tackle is, that's another year under the belt for those two. Any time you can solidify close to the football, you definitely have to be happy about the way your group is going."

There is much, much more to a pursuit of the Super Bowl of course – for instance, the magazine barely touches on the Bucs' defense, precisely because it is so consistently effective – but outside observers such as Paul Zimmerman clearly see a full package in Tampa Bay.

But there is a long, long way to go. It's probably best to take a deep breath, enjoy a few minutes of light summer reading courtesy of Sports Illustrated and then put away the predictions for a few more months.

"It's nice," said Dungy of the nod from 'SI'. "It's flattering that people would view us as a team that can get there, but you have to do it on the field."

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