S John Lynch celebrated with fellow Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks after Lynch's key postseason interception against Washington
When the Buccaneers' sextet of Pro Bowlers landed in Hawaii on Monday, S John Lynch may have felt like he had a little catching up to do. After all, Lynch was the only one of that group of six – which also includes FB Mike Alstott, LB Derrick Brooks, C Tony Mayberry, LB Hardy Nickerson and DT Warren Sapp – who wasn't in Honolulu last February.
Lynch has made this trip before, however. He earned his first Pro Bowl berth in 1997 as one of eight Bucs to gain all-star game invites, and may have made the biggest impact of all. Now that he's back, Lynch plans on providing a repeat performance.
On Saturday, Lynch recalled his 1997 Pro Bowl outing, in which he provided a potential game-turning play in the late going. "We (the NFC) were losing, and I gave us a chance near the end. I popped (Tennessee running back) Eddie George, caused a fumble and recovered it.
"I had invited (Tampa Bay Defensive Backs Coach/Assistant Head Coach) Herm (Edwards) to come but he didn't make the trip. I remember that the day before, he telegraphed me and it said, 'You're over there, now autograph your performance. Don't just play the game.' That's what I did, and I'll take the same attitude into this one."
This time, Edwards is along for the ride, but not on an invite from Lynch. The entire Buccaneers' coaching staff is in Honolulu to coach the NFC squad, a duty that falls on the team that loses in the conference championship game. Thus, this trip to paradise is always a bittersweet one for the attending coaching staff, which came within one step of the Super Bowl. Lynch says the entire Tampa Bay contingent is still feeling the lingering effects of that near-miss.
"It's not getting any easier to stomach the loss we had," said Lynch, "especially when you come over here and everyone is saying that they were really pulling for you. Everyone keeps telling us that those were some of the best defensive efforts they've seen in a long, long time, so it's good from that standpoint. But seeing the Rams over here, and knowing that we almost beat them, and what could have been...it's still tough."
Not that any Bucs are looking for sympathy. The Pro Bowl, with its relaxed atmosphere, beautiful setting and amazing collection of talent, is always an enjoyable experience for the players that are selected. With the game just a day away, a week of rewards for an outstanding individual season is nearly over.
"I'm having a blast, it's really a lot of fun," said Lynch. "I'm a lot more relaxed this time, I'm enjoying it more. Last time, it felt like being a rookie going into training camp, not knowing what to expect, and that was a little nerve-wracking. This time, I'm really trying to enjoy the time over here with my family and my teammates."
Having a familiar coaching staff around doesn't hurt either, and not just for the Buccaneers. Lynch indicated that the rest of the NFC's all stars are discovering the merits of Head Coach Tony Dungy and his crew. "It's nice having our whole staff over here," said Lynch. "We've heard a lot of comments from players that they are enjoying playing for our staff. They're seeing that while (the Buccaneer coaches) expect a lot out of you, they're a great staff to work for."
This season, Lynch used the expert direction of Dungy, Edwards and Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin to post his finest season yet in an outstanding seven-year career. Already considered one of the league's most ferocious tacklers, Lynch was widely lauded for his improved cover skills in 1999. He finished the season third on the team with 128 tackles and added two interceptions and 14 passes defensed. He then added 16 tackles and another pick in the postseason.
Just as he plans to do on Sunday, Lynch made a habit of saving his biggest plays for the most crucial moments. On October 24, the AP All-Pro first-teamer came streaking across the field along the goal line to make a diving deflection of a sure touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of a 6-3 Tampa Bay win over Chicago. Two months later, Lynch set up the winning touchdown in a critical 23-16 downing of Detroit on December 12 by intercepting QB Gus Frerotte in Lions territory in the final period.
Finally, in the Bucs' NFC Divisional Playoff Game against Washington on January 15, Lynch made the play that has been widely credited with turning around a game that saw the Bucs trailing 13-0 margin. Lynch came from the middle of the field to make an acrobatic interception on the right sideline in the third quarter, setting up the first of two Tampa Bay touchdown drives. The Bucs went on to win 14-13 and earn a spot in the conference championship game.
With that kind of precedent in the very recent past, it would be foolish to bet against Lynch making a big play in Sunday's Pro Bowl. It's a virtual certainty that the Bucs' 220-pound guided missile will contribute a head-turning hit or two. One way or another, Lynch is sure to make a lasting impact.