Buccaneer defenders like Derrick Brooks (55) and Warren Sapp (99) are glad to be getting a significant road test early
At lunch on Wednesday, Warren Sapp discussed the trip that lies ahead for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he wasn't talking about Saturday's flight to New England.
While the topic of the day was, indeed, the New England Patriots, Sapp focused more about what the game meant to the Bucs' entire 2000 campaign, perhaps the most heavily anticipated season in franchise history.
Sapp knows that it is important for the Buccaneers to get out of the gates quickly in 2000 if they want to take their season one step further than last year. He's confident that they can.
"This team is well-prepared for this journey we're about to take, and it starts today at practice," said Sapp, referring to the Wednesday afternoon workout that kicks off the team's first week of game preparation.
The challenge, though, is two-fold. Not only must Tampa Bay figure out a way to reverse their slow starts of 1998 and '99, but they must do so with their first game on the road. The team wants to avoid another opening like last year, when a shocking 17-10 loss to the New York Giants in Tampa kicked off a 3-4 start. That in turn necessitated an 8-1 stretch run for the Buccaneers to capture their first division title in 20 years.
"We want to start fast, no doubt about," said Sapp. "We've always been a strong finishing ballclub, where we go 6-2, 5-3 down the stretch. If we got off to a good start, that's just going to build our confidence to where we know we'll have that strong finish at the end. It's going to bode well for us, put us in position to host some playoff games."
Sapp and his teammates know that their growing dominance at home (10 straight victories, including playoffs and postseason) only guarantees a .500 season if they run the slate in Raymond James Stadium. You can't get to 14-2 or 13-3 or even 11-5, as the Bucs were last year, without some success on the road.
"We've got to set our tempo for the season," said LB Derrick Brooks. "We play well at home – we play very well at home – and it's going to be a challenge of our wills to go on the road. If we want to be a good football team, a championship team, we've got to win on the road. I'm kind of glad the schedule was set up like that, because it's going to test us. We'll see what type of team we have, and if we've got the ballplayers that can go up there and get it done in somebody else's territory.
"Opening the season on the road is something that we haven't done in awhile, and it's going to be tough. But if we go up there and get a win on the road, I think we'll be one up in the game."
It might help the Bucs confidence on the way to Foxboro this weekend that they made the exact same trip two weeks ago and came back with a 31-21 win. On the other hand, that was a preseason game, and the outcome was less important than the evaluation. Head Coach Tony Dungy believes the Bucs ran into a potential contender in that third preseason game.
"The opening game is always big any year, especially when you go on the road," said Dungy. "We've got a big challenge going up there and trying to get a road win. New England's a good football team, we found that out when we went up there."
So how do you get that first leg up and avoid a start like last year's? "Hopefully, we'll just play sound, fundamental football," said Dungy. "That's what hurt us at the beginning of last year – we had some errors, turnovers, things like that. If we can eliminate that, I think we're going to be in pretty good shape."
The Bucs finished up the preseason with much better efforts, fundamentally, than what they began with, a good sign, according to Dungy. They also dialed up their intensity a notch in the final two preseason games, and that level should only rise as the Bucs' prime players now get to play a full 60 minutes. Sapp and Brooks sounded as if they were already revving their engines on Wednesday afternoon.
Sapp: "We've always been a focused ballclub, and I think our intensity level has always been there, but now it's for real. Whenever your season starts, you want to be on top and get a fast start. We've got a good test right here on the road."
Brooks: "It's about time. We've been beating up on each other for awhile, then in the preseason, having to come out at some point in the ballgame. It gets kind of old. I think, right now, we're really fired up and ready to get the season on, because our expectations are high."
Sapp, especially, is ready to unleash the full force of the Bucs' defense and he clearly understands the importance of a fast start.
"We're going to come out with the whole gamut, because these are the games that count," he said. "We can't start out 0-1, no doubt about it.
"It's our season. We've waited a long time for this. The 2000 season has begun."