Captain Fear, the Bucs mascot, scans the Raymond James Stadium crowd with binoculars, spotting four Packers fans in the crowd. He grabs a rope and swings from the end-zone pirate ship, cheese grater in hand, flying through the stands and deftly carving their Cheesehead hats into the letters B-U-C-S.
It's only a cartoon, but for a minute or so each week, it's enough to get fans laughing and fired up for the game. The weekly Flash animation on the intro page to buccaneers.com has set the Bucs official site apart from the rest of the league the past three years. It's a trademark befitting a team full of confidence on and off the field.
"We have a lot of playful boastfulness in there no matter how the season's going," said Scott Smith, the Bucs Internet manager. "But since we're 8-2 and doing so well, it just seems a little more authentic now."
Each week, the bravado is there, even if the pregame outlook doesn't necessarily warrant it. Smith recalls the 1999 NFC Championship Game, when the Bucs were underdogs but made headlines in St. Louis with a surprisingly cocky feature on their site.
This season, the cartoon is created each week by John Johnson, a 38-year-old Tampa native hired after the feature's original illustrator, Liesel Donaldson, left to be a stay-at-home mom with her own site (liesel.com). Johnson, a longtime season-ticket holder who remembers the winless first season and those long seasons, was thrilled when a friend of a friend pointed him toward a job opening that would combine three of his favorite things _ cartooning, computers and the Bucs.
"It's amazing that he does one a week," Smith said. "He's doing all the creative work and finishing in a matter of days. He plans some ahead of time, but the story of the season plays a part in the plot of each video, and that can change from game to game."
Smith said storylines are screened and final products approved before they're uploaded to the Web site, but for the most part the cartoons aren't pushing any limits.
"We get it approved from above, and we know kids see this, so you don't want it to be too violent," he said. "If there's a sword fight and one mascot vanquishes the other, you're not going to show a bloody head or anything like that."
Johnson starts each week by bouncing ideas off Bucs executive vice president Ed Glazer, but Johnson said, if anything, the subtle nudges from the front office have been toward more swagger.
"It's not so much that it's too bold or in-your-face, it's that they weren't aggressive enough," Johnson said. "It's not about being aggressive, though. It's about having fun."
Each week, fans are treated to a different opponent's humiliation at the hands of the Bucs. Johnson likes the Vikings because they allow some human interaction with Captain Fear, though the Cheeseheads are easy fodder as well.
"Birds are never really easy," said Johnson, referring to winged opponents in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Baltimore this season. "They can be fun, though. They puff a feather, they lay an egg."
Several Bucs are regulars in the cartoons _ a roaring Warren Sapp, Mike Alstott bowling over defenders, Jon Gruden scowling.
"You kind of go with the players who have the most character in real life," said Johnson, who illustrates the comics with amusing detail. Packers QB Brett Favre, making a cameo this week, is depicted with a Shaggy-like patch of hair poking out of his chin, and Bucs caricatures perfectly capture the little nuances, from Ronde Barber's eyebrows to Gruden's green eyes.
The popularity of the series _ which you can watch, one after another, on the Bucs multimedia page _ hasn't led to it being imitated on other team sites, though Johnson said he has gotten a few offers to test the free-agent waters.
"I've been approached by a couple of other teams wanting to do the same thing for their site," Johnson said. "But I'm not leaving. I'm proud to be a Bucs fan."
TID-BYTES: Better check that bank account: a 1980 Yankees payroll check, signed by Rays manager Lou Piniella, is up for auction on eBay.com, with bidding starting at $40. A Piniella bobblehead, looking a bit like Larry Hagman in a Mariners uniform, sold for $15 last week. ESPN.com's Heisman Watch has Iowa's Brad Banks with a narrow lead, though Miami's Ken Dorsey and Willis McGahee both have more first-place votes.
_ If you have a question or comment about the Internet or a site to suggest, e-mail staff writer Greg Auman at aumansptimes.com.