Memories fading fast for Bucs

TAMPA, Fla. -- From one end of Raymond James Stadium to the other Monday night, there were leftover signs of the Keyshawn Johnson Era, relics of a bygone snippet of time and conspicuous reminders of the now departed and discarded wide receiver.

In the North end zone, the placard touting "Key's Kids," the charity Johnson sponsored, still hung from the stadium facade. The mug shot of a smiling Johnson still graced the official game program which, for a sawbuck, immediately became a coveted collectible. There were even some fans, apparently a group that spent the past week on a commune or perhaps hopelessly lost in a cave, sporting No. 19 uniform jerseys.

And in the Bucs' locker room, there was. . . well, uh, not a single remnant to suggest that the jettisoned wide receiver had spent so much as a day, let alone nearly four seasons, in the company of his estranged teammates. To the Bucs, it was as if Johnson was little more than some accidental tourist who wandered through, collected about $20 million and a Super Bowl ring, and then simply vanished without a trace.

Gone but not forgotten? Well, at least Johnson qualified for one of the two, as his very fingerprints seemed to have been wiped clean from everything he ever touched. The stall at which he dressed was empty, stripped of his nameplate, possibly even fumigated. He had become, in a term popularized by the USSR during the Cold War years or repression, a nonperson.

Had the Tampa Bay players been chugging milk instead of sports drinks following their 19-13 victory over the New York Giants, it's a good bet Johnson's countenance would have been on the side of the cartons. The loquacious receiver nicknamed "Me-shawn" by many of his peers, alternately revered and reviled since arriving here in a 2000 trade, was basically transformed into a living ghost.

In the first game of the Life Without Keyshawn chapter of this schizophrenic franchise's existence, Johnson not only was expunged from the Buccaneers' roster, but apparently purged from the memory banks of his onetime colleagues. Essentially a confederacy of confidence under coach Jon Gruden, the Bucs have become an assemblage of amnesiacs, at least when Johnson's name was cited on Monday evening.

On this night, the acronym MIA gained a new connotation, as Johnson's name primarily was only mentioned in apathy.

"You win for the guys who are here now," said defensive end Simeon Rice. "The players who are in this room right at this moment, who sweated all week to get prepared for this game ... hey, that's the Tampa Bay Bucs now. That is nothing against any particular individual or anything like that. It's just a fact of life."

And the fact of life for the Bucs, in what will be labeled on football calendars here as 1 A.D. (After Distractions), was that things were pretty good. Oh, not significantly more than that, mind you, because Tampa Bay was again forced to close out a squeaker of a game. And that is an undertaking at which the Tampa Bay defense in particular has been uncharacteristically abysmal this season.

But the Bucs, with their backs already to the playoff wall, did enough to snap a disastrous three-game losing streak and nudge their record to 5-6. Whether the victory -- fashioned by a ball-control offense that enjoyed a 15-minute edge in time of possession and a defense that limited the error-prone Giants to a measly 212 yards -- is a turning point for the Bucs remains to be seen.

Certainly the schedule is favorable as Tampa Bay has but one game remaining against an opponent that presently has a winning record (the season finale at Tennessee on Dec. 28). But these Bucs are more teases than terrors this year and, the fact is, only two franchises with more than five defeats have made it to the Super Bowl under the 16-game schedule.

In the second quarter, after reserve wide receiver Charles Lee scored on a 53-yard catch and run to produce a 14-3 lead, a fan produced a placard which read: "Just give me the damn pink slip." The allusion to Johnson, and his penchant for always wanting the ball, was obvious. Less obvious is whether the inconsistent Bucs still have time to slip out of the noose in which they find themselves.

That's why, while some Tampa Bay players would not acknowledge it on the record, the Monday night victory was nearly as important for its significance as relates to Johnson, as for sheer playoff survival. There was, make no mistake, a sense of satisfaction for many of the Tampa Bay players at having demonstrated they could function minus a veteran who never captured any popularity contests in the locker room.

Word is that following the announcement of Johnson's deactivation for the remainder of the season, only a handful of Bucs players phoned him to commiserate. Given that there were times during his tenure here when Johnson seemed to ostracize himself, and other occasions when he was a squeaky voice of unreason, that reaction isn't altogether surprising. A good player, but good riddance, seemed to be the theme for the past week.

The prevailing sentiment, in speaking to Bucs players and officials several hours before the matchup with the Giants, was that the Tampa Bay roster includes a staunch group of Gruden loyalists who were prepared to run through walls to validate the club's decision to purge Johnson last week. Everyone figured that band of Gruden grunts would turn things up a notch ... but that wasn't always the case.

Notable, however, was that the Tampa Bay wide receiver corps acquitted itself very well in its first game without Johnson in the lineup. Led by Keenan McCardell, who had really emerged as quarterback Brad Johnson's "go to" receiver early in the campaign, the top three wideouts combined for 17 catches, 217 yards and one touchdown.

While the veteran Joe Jurevicius started in Johnson's spot, it was the little-utilized Lee who made the most of his newfound opportunity, snagging five passes for 91 yards and the second score of his itinerant career. Stat of the night: In his 3½ seasons here, Johnson caught 298 passes, but only one was for more yards than Lee's 53-yard scoring play.

"Did I feel the pressure?" said Lee, cut in the preseason and then re-signed two months ago, mulling a post-game query. "Not really. I mean, I knew it was an opportunity, and I need to make the most of those because it's not like I've had a lot of chances. I mean, not many guys even mentioned Keyshawn because what was going to be gained anyway by that? But, heck, you'd be lying if you tried to say things weren't different around here. What's done, though, is done. On the other hand, I'm sure there were some guys out there trying to prove something."

One of those players, very clearly, was defensive tackle Warren Sapp.

Never a fan of Johnson, viewing him as a nettlesome interloper and potential threat to his stature inside the locker room, Sapp shed no tears over the departure of the wide receiver. He did shed plenty of Giants blockers, however, in authoring one of his best performances of the season.

Sapp posted five tackles, all solo efforts, and had two sacks. His second stop of Giants quarterback Kerry Collins all but squelched New York's comeback aspirations on the Giants' final offensive possession. In addition, Sapp forced two fumbles and also caused Collins to be flagged for intentional grounding. By unofficial count, he drew a holding call and two false start penalties.

It was obvious afterward that Sapp, antagonized at times by Johnson's presence in his personal fiefdom, regarded the victory as vindication on any number of levels.

"It was a statement [game]," Sapp said. "Take that any way you want, OK?"