Distractions? Not on the Buccaneers' smooth-sailing ship

Al Messerschmidt / Getty Imsges
In his 14th season with the Bucs, linebacker Derrick Brooks provides veteran leadership on and off the field.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have spent the week on their axis of relative normalcy watching the Dallas Cowboys' world spin further into chaos. It has been must-see monitoring for the Bucs. Dallas owner Jerry Jones and coach Wade Phillips explaining daily why things supposedly are unraveling, how they're going to be fixed and what could happen if the current losing streak reaches three straight and four of their last five games after playing host to Tampa Bay Sunday.

A team with so much talent -- "Super Bowl talent," Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia said -- letting so many distractions play out publicly with no in-house solution other than acquiring more players and shifting coaching responsibilities seems so contrary to the proven formula. It's a formula that has worked for perennial winners like New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.

Veteran territory
Quarterback Jeff Garcia is one of eight players on the Bucs roster with at least 10 years of NFL experience:

Player, Pos. (NFL exp.)
Ronde Barber, CB (12)
Derrick Brooks, LB (14)
Kevin Carter, DE (14)
Warrick Dunn, RB (12)
Joey Galloway, WR (14)
Jeff Garcia, QB (10)
Brian Griese, QB (11)
Ike Hilliard, WR (12)

The way the NFC South-leading Buccaneers (5-2) handle themselves is why they feel confident not only about traveling to Dallas, but in what lies further ahead.

"It's left on my shoulders, for me to handle," 14-year veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks, a 10-time Pro Bowler said. "There is respect for each other in our locker room, and we treat each other like men. Our leaders, Ronde Barber, myself, Jeff Garcia and Kevin Carter, we take care of things before the coaches or [GM] Bruce Allen have to.

"We talk all the time and if there is an issue, the leaders figure it out, and then it's left to me to kind of handle things. It's important that I seek the advice of others so people don't think I'm trying to do everything by myself but it's just the way we operate. It's not like we want guys to be a certain way and not be who they are. There is just a level of professionalism that's expected."

Character, with no lack-thereof addendum, is more than a catchphrase for the franchises that have sustained regular-season and postseason success. That doesn't mean those teams don't have their issues or have players with questionable pasts on the roster -- Tampa Bay included. It's just that those issues, including injuries, are not allowed to be turned into excuses or reasons why the team isn't playing well. There are appropriate means to work through adverse times.

"It's something we really had to deal with last year, because we had quite a few injuries that could have set us back," Garcia said about the team that won the NFC South title. "That's when Earnest Graham, who nobody really knew, got his opportunity. Cadillac Williams goes down early, and he had to step up. We have some quality veterans, especially Derrick Brooks, that know what it's all about, that know how to practice. That know how to play through pain. That carries over to guys trying to make this team, to guys who are established.

"Everybody is accountable, which is why we're a team. That's why Earnest Graham didn't think twice about moving to fullback and executing to where we didn't miss a beat. That's completely unselfish. That's what it takes to win."

Garcia, mind you, is also someone who has had to swallow hard.

The 38-year-old quarterback will be starting his third straight game after getting benched with a calf injury following a poor performance in a season-opening loss to New Orleans, which followed a string of poor performances in the preseason. The injury was largely to blame for his substandard play, but his wounded feelings over not getting a contract extension and the Bucs' flirtation with acquiring Brett Favre didn't help.

Garcia's relationship with coach Jon Gruden seemed on the rocks, as did his tenure with the Bucs. However, as Brian Griese led Tampa Bay to a 3-1 record, Garcia got healthy in body and mind. When Griese suffered an arm injury in a loss at Denver and Garcia was called to the rescue, he responded like the guy who earned his fourth Pro Bowl berth last season.

He led the Bucs to two straight wins.

As odd as it may seem, Garcia credited Gruden for holding things together.

"He demands so much out of us mentally and physically -- not in a negative way -- but in a challenging way," Garcia said. "That forces us to really find ways to be on the same page. It's important that the entire team understands what our goal is and what our goals are and what the emphasis is."

The emphasis is team.

The fact so many players understand that concept is why Tampa Bay can give second or third chances to players with baggage, like tight end Jerramy Stevens or wide receiver Antonio Bryant. Brooks and Co., not personal security, keep teammates in line before coaches or the NFL are prompted to act.

"Our head coach, he has a forgiving spirit, and if he thinks a guy is talented enough to help us, he and Bruce Allen will go out on a limb for a guy because of our locker room," Brooks said. "The outside world might question why we're giving a guy a second chance. We're not perfect by any means, but when guys get here, we don't even have to say much, because they understand how we're going to do things. Most guys fall in line."

The adversity Dallas (4-3) is experiencing could simply be the rough patch that just about every team goes through at some point in the season, Brooks suggests. It's just magnified because of who they are, boasting a roster with 13 Pro Bowlers and high preseason expectations. How they handle things is what will determine where things go. The Buccaneers said the Cowboys' locker room might seem to the public like it's in disarray, but Dallas has enough talent to overcome its issues and click off a run of victories, starting against Tampa Bay.

"We are going into a hornets' nest," Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "We are going to get their best shot. With everything they've been going through, I'm sure those guys can't wait to get on the field."

Added Brooks: "I'm sure those guys are hungrier than they've been all season. They're looking to get back on track, and if we don't realize that, we're setting ourselves up for failure. They're going to be hungry. We might be facing the hungriest team in the league."

Maybe not.

"We're not the most athletic or the best team when you look at it, as far as the physical talent," Garcia said. "But we have enough good players and enough solid leaders that we're able to do certain things that give us that chance. We're always competitive. We're hungry. We play with fire. We play with emotion. A lot of that stems from our coach, himself, and a lot stems from who we are, what we do and how we go about holding each other accountable."