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SUCCESS STORY?

"Congratulations."

Tony Dungy looks oddly at you as you say the word. He allows half a smile, the way a man does when he sees a punchline coming.

"For what?" he says, cautiously.

For getting to the playoffs, you tell him.

For three post-seasons out of four.

For goodness' sakes, you say. Hasn't anyone said congratulations?

Dungy chuckles softly and shakes his head. No, he says, not lately. "A few people said it after the Rams' game, but that's old news."

And there you have it: The new attitude of Tampa Bay, where it is possible to go into the promised land grumbling. Playoffs? Who cares about the playoffs? Let's talk about the Super Bowl.

We have changed. Once, we were starved for any taste of success at all, and we would build statues of whoever might provide it. For so long, we were separated from the playoffs by broken promises and unanswered prayers. Then came Dungy, and now the winning is expected, and the playoffs are written into the day planners in ink.

Look around you. Is anyone happy? In some ways, we are less satisfied now than in the old days. Victories are less satisfying. Defeat cuts deeper. Failure lasts longer.

We look at the Bucs differently now. We look at the playoffs differently.

And, yes, we look at Dungy differently.

Four straight winning seasons. Here. Pro Bowlers by the fistful. Here. A playoff, a near miss. A playoff. Another playoff. All here. And no one is smiling. Champagne is no longer enough; it must be Dom Perignon.

Yet, as the Bucs enter the post-season today, you can hear the grumbling. About the seeding. About the chances. About the coach.

It is the most amazing thing. In '96, Dungy won six games, and his players dumped Gatorade on him. In '97, he made the post-season, unexpectedly, and he could have run for mayor.

These days, however, Dungy is more harshly criticized than at any point in his tenure. You hear what he lacks more than what he has. Instead of being the coach who molded his players into greatness, he is viewed by many as the man who holds them back by being a) too conservative, b) too stubborn, c) too defensive intensive or d) too undemanding.

His calm, once considered his major strength, strikes his growing critics as complacency. In the absence of familiar scapegoats such as Mike Shula and Trent Dilfer, the gripes about the continued offensive shortcomings have found their way to his desk, as if he has been diagramming defenses all these years without ever noticing an offensive play. He is too conservative, too stubborn, too cold-blooded. His team remains maddeningly flawed.

We have changed. We look at Dungy the way kids in the back seat look at the way their grandfather drives. Are we there yet? What's taking so long? Shouldn't you turn here? And, for goodness' sake, why can't you pass?

This is where we are. The truth is, Dungy has not changed. We have.

"It's not unfair," Dungy said. "That's the way it is. It's not unfair, because you want those types of expectations, that it's not a good year unless you go to the Super Bowl. I think it's good. That's what we set out to do when we came. We want fans to have the expectation that we're going to have a winning record every year, that we're going to (the) playoffs every year, that we're going to get to the championship game and win it.

"I said at the time that it would never be as sweet again as the first time in '97. When it's unexpected, it's almost euphoric. After that, it's ho-hum if you make it and what-went-wrong if you don't. It'll be that way until we win one. And then that will be ho-hum if you win it and what-went-wrong if you don't. I remember in Pittsburgh, when we won our third Super Bowl, the first question wasn't how we had done it or how we felt, but whether we could win our fourth."

There is such a short memory around here. No one thinks about the days of Wyche and Perkins anymore, or cheap owners or busted draft picks or quarterbacks branded as failures because they had no cast around them. The stability, the sanity that Dungy brought seems to be, well, old news.

Blame Dungy for that, too. He raised the expectations. These days, we watch a team in its final minute. We notice when it does not try to get the ball closer to the goal line, and when the field goal attempt misses, we wonder if that had something to do with it.

And so it is that Dungy enters the post-season, still without a road victory, and no one's thirst is quenched.

We are not alone. There have been other places where winning has appeared as a plateau, other coaches who grew tiresome in the familiarity of good-but-not-great. Marty Schottenheimer in Cleveland and Kansas City. Jim Mora in New Orleans. Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia. They were coaches who could get you into the playoffs, the criticism went, but not through them. Because of that, careers ended badly.

If this playoff run is not successful, you wonder how long it will last until the comparison starts. Is Dungy this decade's Schottenheimer? Is he a guy who can take a team only so far?

"Winning the Super Bowl is what it's all about," Dungy said. "It's why you come to work. I would rather be like a Marty Schottenheimer, who had 12, 15 years of playoffs, who had competitive teams for more than a decade, than a guy who wins once and is never heard from again. But that's why you're hired. To take a team to the Super Bowl."

There are more similarities. Like Schottenheimer, Dungy's teams always seem to play close in the fourth quarter. But in the playoffs, that was always like Russian Roulette for Schottenheimer. Mess with too many close games and you're going to be bitten by one.

"I think the plateau coach is a myth," Dungy said. "For years, Tom Landry was thought of that way, but he had 25 years, and he was able to get on the other side of it. Most of the time, it takes the better team to win. You aren't going to get through very many times with a lesser team and a good coaching job."

For the record, Dungy isn't satisfied either. If you want to know, he wasn't happy in '97, or in '98, or in '99 for that matter. Hey, he has high expectations, too.

"I haven't really been satisfied since '96," he said. "That team played about as well as it could, considering who we had. But I thought we should have done better in both of our playoff years. Last year, I thought we should have gotten to the Super Bowl, and I thought we had a good chance of winning it. From the oddsmakers in (the NFC title) game, I was in the minority, but that's the way I felt. I don't think you can ever be satisfied unless you're playing as well as you possibly can."

You ask Dungy if he would consider his career complete without a Super Bowl.

"Perhaps," he said. "If we did everything we could do, but it just wasn't the Lord's will. The Super Bowl is why you're in business, but if you don't get there, you can't say it's the end of the world. In the game of life, it's way down the line in importance."

Time was, we would have listened to such a comment and admired Dungy's perspective, his outlook on life, his faith. We have changed. These days, you can bet there are critics who would question Dungy's priorities rather than their own.

Hey, hunger doesn't make you more rational.

It simply makes you want it all.

And now.

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