A Treasure Chest of Dreams

Times Staff Writer

Oakland Raider receiver Tim Brown once thought championships would come in bunches, that he would have so many Super Bowl rings he could barely lift his hands. The years passed, the Team of the Decades started to look more like the Team of the Decayed, and Brown went from the hunter to the haunted. He would get his ring one day, friends promised, but one thought kept bouncing around in his head:

Just when, baby?

Fifteen years after his rookie season -- and 19 years after the Raiders' last Super Bowl appearance -- Brown stands four quarters from every NFL player's dream. Somehow, he can't quite believe it.

"When we drove up and saw the Raider emblem on the Super Bowl banner, I told [running back] Randy Jordan, 'I'm tripping a little bit,' " said Brown, 36, whose team faces Tampa Bay today in Super Bowl XXXVII at Qualcomm Stadium. "I shook my head and smiled. I don't know how to explain it. I come to the Super Bowl every year and see the Ravens' banner, the Patriots' banner, see the Broncos' banner, and all of a sudden to see the Raiders' banner up there, it was very special."

It certainly didn't look like a banner year for Oakland when, after a 4-0 start, the Raiders lost four in a row. They are the first team in NFL history to weather a four-game slide and make it to the Super Bowl. First-year Coach Bill Callahan has earned a truckload of respect for pulling his team out of that tailspin.

But the coach who poured the foundation for this Raider team will be standing on the opposite sideline today. Jon Gruden, who bolted for the Buccaneers after last season, returned the Raiders to respectability after taking over as their coach in 1998. He signed quarterback Rich Gannon, the NFL's most valuable player this season, and legendary receiver Jerry Rice, implemented a cutting-edge offensive system, rid the locker room of malcontents, and in 2000 took the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since the 1993 season.

Gruden is Tampa Bay's coach now, though, and feels not an ounce of ambivalence about sticking it to his former team and Raider owner Al Davis. The Buccaneers, who joined the league in 1976, have waited an even longer time to get here, after all, and plan to make the most of their first Super Bowl appearance. They are powered by the league's No. 1 defense, a unit some people consider among the best in league history, and an offense more steady than spectacular.

Even as they prepared for the first Super Bowl in club history, longtime Buccaneers paid homage to the suffering souls who endured the worst years when the franchise was synonymous with losing.

"We were the laughingstock of the league for a long time and we had to turn it around," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "We had to turn around years and years of bad football. That takes a whole makeover. It's just a great feeling to share this with the guys who played in the icicle orange and the pewter before us. They helped keep this thing standing."

To get to this point, the Buccaneers had to lay to rest the notion they couldn't win a playoff game on the road, especially in cold weather. They put a 27-10 thumping on Philadelphia in the NFC championship game last week, a showdown that marked the end of Veterans Stadium for football and the end of an Eagle team angling for the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance since the 1980 season.

Despite all the losing seasons throughout their history, the Buccaneers have been building toward this moment for some time. They are 42-22 since the start of the 1999 season, the league's third-best winning percentage (.656) during that stretch. What Tony Dungy started, Gruden is finishing.

"Don't give us any credit; we haven't done anything yet," Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott said. "That's the truth. We have won the NFC championship game. It was difficult.... Before you get the real credit and the real respect, you have to win the big game."

That feeling pervades both locker rooms. It's not enough just to get here, of course. The Buccaneers understand that, even though no one on their roster has ever won a Super Bowl. The oldest player on their team, 39-year-old tackle Lomas Brown, got this far two years ago with the New York Giants, and had a difficult time shaking the heartache of getting turned back at the doorstep.

"You don't want to lose a Super Bowl," he said. "It's hard for me to imagine those guys from Buffalo. After losing that one [to Baltimore], I know how bad I felt. It felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. It was one of the most miserable feelings I've ever had."

Whereas Tampa Bay has a ring-less roster, the Raiders have infused theirs with Super Bowl veterans Rice, who won three with San Francisco; linebacker Bill Romanowski, who won a combined four with the 49ers and Broncos; and safety Rod Woodson, who won one with Baltimore. Not only are those great players, but, the theory goes, their winning ways are infectious. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't.

"Having personal accomplishments as a part of your resume, I don't know if that means anything," Woodson said. "If we had all of that in the past and got here and played terribly, [those accomplishments] mean nothing."

The Raiders will counter Tampa Bay's top-ranked defense with the league's No. 1 offense. Oakland, which routinely led the NFL in rushing under Gruden, now passes on almost every down. Even at 37, Gannon is mobile and accurate. His stable of receivers includes future Hall of Famers Rice and Brown, a rising star in Jerry Porter and a sure-handed, ultra-quick running back in Charlie Garner.

That group will try to make a dent in a defense that includes linebacker Derrick Brooks, the NFL's defensive player of the year, and Pro Bowl players John Lynch, Simeon Rice and Sapp. The Buccaneer pass defense ranked first in the league this season, giving up 155.6 yards per game and intercepting a league-high 31 passes. Brooks scored four touchdowns on turnovers -- three on interceptions, one on a fumble return -- the most ever by an NFL linebacker in a single season.

"We've been shutting down some pretty high-powered offenses and putting them away," said cornerback Brian Kelly, who tied for the league lead this season with eight interceptions. "The challenge was set out against San Francisco: Could we stop them? We answered that question. The challenge with Philly, we answered that question. Just to prove a lot of doubters wrong is very special. We all gain a lot of confidence off of that."

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