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Title game demons everywhere for Bucs

The Pro Bowlers sit in Hawaii, waiting for the Rams to arrive, stewing about the season's end.

Bucs players gathered at the Pro Bowl on Tuesday to begin enjoying the surf and turf, but they could not match the wave the St. Louis Rams were riding.

Rams players were the only ones absent from the NFC workout. They were excused to attend a parade celebrating Sunday's Super Bowl XXXIV victory over the Tennessee Titans. For the Bucs, who came within less than five minutes of beating the Rams in the NFC Championship Game, watching the Super Bowl was particularly difficult.

"I feel that St. Louis is partying with my trophy," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "So I've got to go get it.

"Tasting that championship game, coming that close, we've got to get to the table and have the whole dinner."

Safety John Lynch said he had trouble sleeping early last week after arriving home from St. Louis. He replayed the championship game in his mind so many times that he decided to watch a videotape of the real thing.

"I was telling the guys today, I think it was Tuesday morning, and I was still back in Tampa. I hadn't been sleeping at all. Finally I said I've got to do something," Lynch said. "I had the TV copy and went down to watch it at 4 in the morning.

"My wife said, "Where are you going?' I said, "I'm going to watch the game.' At 4 in the morning, I watched every last bit of it and was even more sick after that. It hasn't gone away yet, and it's a bitter feeling. You feel good about this year but feel rotten to be that close and not get there."

Lynch said the sting of losing should serve as extra motivation during the off-season.

In 1997, the Bucs became complacent after making their first playoff appearance in 18 years.

"I was talking to Phil McConkey, the old Giants receiver, who was on my plane," Lynch said. "He talked about how the Giants went through the same thing. The first time you get there, you feel upset you didn't go further. But the second time, it just stays and stays with you. It kind of motivates the team. The next time, you know the finality if you don't win. I hope it stays on everybody's mind every day of this off-season."

Sapp agreed. Last off-season he shed nearly 40 pounds, and he ended up being named NFL Defensive Player of the Year this season. But Sapp said he plans to work harder to prepare for the 2000 season.

"That's what me and (Derrick) Brooks have been talking about the first two days we've been here," Sapp said. "How do we get back? We're going to bang the 16 week off-season conditioning, and the sky is the limit because we feel we got a pretty good ballclub. With one or two more pieces here or there, we'll be all right."

How close are the Bucs to being a Super Bowl team?

"One play, four minutes, we were very close," linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "I think if we made a play somewhere down the stretch or capitalized on some of the opportunities we had early in the game, we may be having a parade today down Kennedy Boulevard."