LB Derrick Brooks' statistical contributions in 2003 were right in line with his normal achievements, but he got very little pleasure out of them
How do 151 tackles, two interceptions, three forced fumbles, nine passes defensed and a sack feel?
That first sentence contains Derrick Brooks' stat line from 2003. Not to diminish those numbers by their familiarity, but that's pretty much the statistical contributions one has come to expect from Brooks, as lofty as they are.
Last year, when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl and he was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Brooks recorded 170 tackles, five interceptions, no forced fumbles, 15 passes defensed and one sack – numbers not appreciably different from his 2003 marks (although his four touchdowns in '02 were an incredible anomaly.)
Those numbers felt good in 2002 because they could be clearly associated with what the Bucs accomplished that season, which was basically everything. This year, Brooks' Bucs finished 7-9 and the seven-time Pro Bowler refuses to separate himself or his numbers from that disappointment.
"It hurts to be in this situation," said Brooks after the season-ending loss at Tennessee. "It's real sickening. I don't like losing. I'm not making any excuses for losing."
Brooks has had somewhere between 133 and 189 tackles in each of the last eight seasons. He's averaged just over two interceptions per season in that span and basically been good for one sack, two forced fumbles and 10 passes defensed each year. Having just turned 30 last April and still being in peak physical condition, it's a safe bet that he will post similar numbers for the Bucs in 2004. However, this particular locker room leader will not be satisfied with merely meeting any personal goals.
After the Tennessee game, Brooks pledged to make the 2004 season 'personal.' After the Buccaneers finished his first two seasons with 7-9 and 6-10 records, Brooks said the same thing to himself, then backed it up by helping the franchise turn the corner into respectability, and then far beyond. He's not about to let those feelings from 1995 and 1996 return.
"I'm not going to be associated with losing as long as I'm here," said Brooks. "I want to promise our fans that I'll be back. It starts with me. I'm a leader of this football team and I'll make no excuses for what happened, whether it be injuries, or a lack of big plays or whatever it may be. The only person I can start with is me. I'm making it personal, right now, to get this franchise back to the Super Bowl."
Brooks' place in NFL history is solid. As one of only eight players in league history (along with teammate Warren Sapp and such luminaries as Reggie White, Mike Singletary and Lawrence Taylor) to win a Super Bowl, earn at least six consecutive Pro Bowl bids and garner Defensive Player of the Year honors, Brooks seems like a sure bet for the Hall of Fame when his playing days are over.
But Brooks' days are far from over, nor is the Bucs' supposed 'window' of success. Tampa Bay didn't so much fall apart after its Super Bowl title but suffer a series of small implosions. Brooks feels comfortable that he can help lead the team back to success immediately because they weren't far removed from succeeding again in 2003.
"We respect that we're a good football game because we had a chance to win every game," he said. "That's the difference, that's why I look at this season realistically. We had a realistic chance to win every game in the fourth quarter, besides (Tennessee).
"It's hard to win games. The line is so fine between 7-9 and 12-4. A converted an extra point the second week of the season; an onside kick is called the right way against the Colts; we get a chance to make a tackle in Carolina; a guy gets a sack and we're right there to get the ball..."
Brooks did wonder aloud, after the loss to Tennessee, if the Bucs' younger players, who had been around for nothing but winning seasons before 2003, could possibly feel the pain of 7-9 as deeply as he did. However, he has no doubt that the Buccaneers will gain the proper motivation from their '03 struggles thanks to the presence of Jon Gruden
"The best thing about this is we've got a head coach who accepts responsibility," said Brooks. "And he will not be associated with losing. With him making that statement in front of this team, I can't do anything but get fired up."
Three Area Youngsters in PPK Finals
Jessica O'Shea hopes to become the Bay area's next Savannah Stona.
Never heard of either of them? That's not surprising, considering both are still young – if quite talented – girls. You might hear O'Shea's name, however, if you're tuned in to the AFC Divisional playoff game on Sunday between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Indianapolis Colts.
O'Shea is one of 32 finalists in the national NFL Pepsi Punt, Pass & Kick competition. Those 32 youngsters, split by gender and then into four age groups, will compete before the Chiefs-Colts game to determined eight national champions, and the winners will be introduced live on CBS-TV between the third and fourth quarters of the contest.
Last year, in a playoff game played at the Coliseum in Nashville, Stona, a Safety Harbor native, was crowned the national champ of the 8-9 year-old girls' division. This year, O'Shea is one of an impressive group of three young men and women from the Bucs' area who will compete in the finals. Each competitor in the year-long PPK program begins locally, with the 32 NFL teams holding local finals before various home games during the regular season. Winners of those competitions then represent their home teams by wearing their jerseys at regional and then national rounds.
O'Shea will try to win the 12-13 year-old girls' division, competing against Ariel Gregersen (Raiders), Jenna Doyle (49ers) and Jordan Readlicker (Cowboys).
Daniel Meacock of Sarasota will try to out-perform a trio of competitors in the 12-13 year-old boys' division, including Joseph Jackson (Jaguars), Jacob Santure (Lions) and Jared Broberg (Patriots).
Evan McKeon of Palm Harbor will compete for the 14-15 year-old boys' division title against Jared Witter (Chiefs), Nathan Bauer (Lions) and Lance Kendricks (Packers).
This year's 32 finalists came from a field of 3.5 million original participants. NFL PEPSI Punt, Pass & Kick is part of the NFL's "Play Football" initiative that provides exciting ways for even more children to play, watch and experience the game of football.
Current NFL stars who took part in PPK as youngsters include Bucs punter Tom Tupa, as well as Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, Buffalo Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe, Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover and New York Jets' quarterback Vinny Testaverde.
Still Stingy on Third Downs
The Buccaneers broke quite a few team records in 2003, from total yards gained (5453) to touchdown passes (27) to gross punting average (43.3). One record that the team just missed out on, however, was opponent third down percentage.
In 2003, the Bucs allowed their opponents to convert on just 68 of 214 third down chances, or 31.78% of all tries. In 1999, the team set its franchise record in that category at 31.68, allowing conversions on just 64 of 202 tries.
So, no new record for the 2003 Bucs, but a clear indication that despite all of the injury-driven turnover on defense, particularly in the secondary, the team was as good as it has ever been in denying third down plays.
Overall, Tampa Bay finished fifth in the NFL in that category, dropping two spots in the rankings from 2002 even though they improved their own mark notably, down from 33.6 last year. The only defenses to do a better job of stifling opponents on third down in 2003 were Jacksonville (27.7), Baltimore (29.4), Denver (29.5) and Dallas (30.4).
Some of the Bucs' specific third-down numbers were even more impressive. Tampa Bay was perceived – correctly so – to have some difficulties on offense on third-and-short situations (three yards or less) in 3003. Yet the team's offensive conversion rate of 53.3% (32 of 60) was significantly better than what it allowed, 42.4% (25 of 59).
The Bucs were also particularly good against the pass on third down (29.9%) and seemed to turn it up a notch in the second half (29.7%). In fact, over Tampa Bay's last six games, the defense allowed only seven of 31 third down tries in the second half to succeed, an abysmal rate of 22.6%.