Bucs look to save lost season

TAMPA -- After the most celebrated public firing in NFL history, Tampa Bay Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp -- the loquacious, outrageous, funny, angry, sarcastic and caustic Warren Sapp -- sat silently and passively at his locker, waving at reporters like they were gnats that had just emerged from some steamy Florida swamp.

Sapp didn't want to talk. He didn't want to talk about head coach Jon Gruden's unorthodox and unprecedented decision to deactivate wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who was, in essence, dismissed for insubordination -- in short, fired with six games left in the bitterly disappointing 2003 season.

Sapp stared. He growled at a TV cameraman trying to record his status as a conscientious objector in the media frenzy going on around him.

But he said nothing. And it spoke volumes.

What Sapp was perhaps saying is that this is his way of dealing with Keyshawn Johnson's dismissal. And this is the way his teammates should deal with it, too. It was well-known to close observers of the defending Super Bowl champions, that there was no love lost between Sapp and Johnson, just like there was constant friction between Johnson and Gruden.

Gruden, acting on behalf of many in the locker room who had tired of Johnson's act, finally pulled the plug. And this was Sapp's way of saying he approved, and that he was ready to move on.

Or, as Simeon Rice, standing next to Sapp, so eloquently put it, "At a certain point, you've got to say, 'so what,' and move on. We're at the 'so what' point."

At 4-6, the Bucs have a chance to move on tonight against the equally disappointed New York Giants (4-6) in a Monday Night Football matchup that will certainly test the Nielsen gods. No doubt many who love football, but who also love a good soap opera, will be tuned in to see just how well the Bucs bounce back.

"This is a test case," one Bucs coach told me last week at the Bucs practice facility the day after Johnson was deactivated. "It's never been done before. People will want to see how we come out of it."

Last Sunday night, just after the Green Bay Packers pinned a demoralizing 20-13 defeat on the Bucs, Sapp was at his locker and had plenty to say. Perhaps foreshadowing the events of the next few days, Sapp talked openly how "the players who built this team, me, Brooks and Lynch are not going to lay down and die. You can believe that."

Sapp vowed that the defense, which surrendered a 98-yard go-ahead touchdown drive to Brett Favre and Company, would rise again. It had better. Injuries to fullback Mike Alstott -- the Bucs have not had a rushing touchdown since Alstott was put on injured reserve in Week 5 -- and the offensive line have stalled Gruden's offense.

But it's the Bucs defense, which carried them to last year's Super Bowl win, that has for some inexplicable reason disappeared late in big games. Overtime loss to the Colts on Monday night. Last-minute touchdown pass by the Panthers to snuff a Bucs rally. Then Favre's magic surfaced last Sunday evening courtesy of a Bucs secondary that just seemed dazed and confused.

"It's not taking any credit away from the teams that have beat us, but watching the film, there's things that we're doing ourselves that's costing us plays that obviously add up to losses," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "We're doing things to hurt ourselves."

It's been blown coverages. Slowly reacting to plays. Missed tackles. Very un-Buc like behavior for a squad that has carried this franchise for the last half decade.

"There is no way to get out of this but to go back to doing what we do," said Pro Bowl safety John Lynch, who has been dealing all season with nagging injuries. "We have to play our style of defense and begin to dominate again."

Most certainly the loss of safety Dexter Jackson -- a favorite of Gruden, who nicknamed him "Dirty Jack" -- to free agency and the loss of cornerback Brian Kelly to injury have left the Bucs thin in the secondary.

Starting right corner Tim Wansley, who got off on the wrong foot by sleeping in meetings and being late for others, has been a stubborn reclamation project that is just coming around. And the lack of depth has forced the Bucs to use the undersized Corey Ivy in nickel packages -- not the optimum option for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

But it hasn't been so much personnel changes that have hurt the Bucs, but the obvious lack of focus. From the beginning of training camp, there had been discussion of repeating as champions, and what it would take to do so. Gruden talked to Pat Riley and Mike Shanahan, studied corporate success stories, and he wrote a book about his football philosophy -- all of it designed to set down the blueprint for keeping his team on top for back-to-back Lombardi Trophies, which has been so elusive in the NFL lately.

But it all seemed to be derailed by little nicks and cuts to the team's psyche. The injuries. The breakdowns. The on-going saga of Michael Pittman's alleged spousal abuse problems. The persistent rumors of a rift between Gruden and general manager Rich McKay, which are constantly denied by the principals, but never seem to go away.

And then there was Keyshawn Johnson, whom Gruden called "a distraction" and McKay called "a disruption." Johnson made it public that he didn't want to be a Buc beyond the 2003 season -- in fact, he told Gruden that. And Johnson made it well known throughout the locker room. One player said Johnson "checked out on us." He missed meetings, missed workouts and had waning focus in practice and in games, which culminated in two false start penalties against the Packers.

On the day after the loss to Green Bay, Gruden told McKay he wanted Johnson gone. The two discussed just fining and suspending Johnson, but both of them dismissed that idea -- they didn't want constant questions from the press about when Johnson would be coming back. So, he was told to go home, with pay -- $170,000 a week for the remainder of the season.

This didn't seem to bother players in the Bucs locker room. Some -- such as Brooks and quarterback Brad Johnson -- said they called Johnson to wish him well. Just about every other former teammate seemed happy to get rid of Johnson.

"One of the things that makes this a great game is that if your heart's not in it, it doesn't work," said Lynch. "I think ultimately, it shows itself. It manifests itself in different ways. It was clear he didn't want to be here. And I applaud the organization for making a decision they thought was in the best interest of the team."

Or as Dwight Smith put it: "He's been asking for it. You usually get what you ask for."

Ronde Barber said that for "the betterment of the team, for the betterment of some of the impressionable minds in here, it was a decision that had to be made."

On Fox's pre-game show on Sunday, Johnson said that the problem at One Buc Place goes deeper than his disenchantment with Gruden and vice versa. He didn't elaborate.

What's clear -- and was probably clear after the Bucs won the Super Bowl -- is that this is Gruden's team now. He's in control. The Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, was fully aware of and on board with the decision to jettison Johnson -- despite the two first round picks and $20 million they had invested in the Pro Bowl wide receiver.

"I'm very confident the right decision was made," said Gruden. "We felt that this was the appropriate thing to do. We realize it's inconvenient, it's uncomfortable. We regret that obviously. But this gives us a chance to move on, it gives Keyshawn a chance to move on. We think that's a good thing."

Said Johnson, "I didn't see this coming at all, because I would think you would want one of your best players on the field regardless of what you feel."

So, in an attempt to re-claim his team, Gruden has won a power struggle. Now comes the hard part.

Reclaiming a lost season.

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.