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Will you cheer?

Imagine third down, 9 yards to go. It shouldn't be a reach, because the entire Bucs season has been third down, 9 yards to go. Even kickoffs.

Imagine Tim Brown cutting 6 yards across the middle. Again, we are not stretching the limits of imagination here. There are weeks the Bucs' game plan seems dedicated to the goal of coming up just short of the first-down marker.

Now imagine a familiar face in a foreign uniform sweeping down upon him. Imagine the same old crunch, the sound of a truck's fender denting a car's.

Imagine John Lynch winding up on a Bucs receiver.

Do you cheer?

Under normal circumstances _ and please, don't let these be normal circumstances _ the question might seem preposterous. There is an accepted protocol to how fans treat former players, even ones as popular as Lynch. You cheer warmly during the pregame introductions. Someone holds up a sign thanking him for the memories. Then they start the game, and he's playing for the other side.

Ah, but these are trying times. Every week, the Bucs seem to inch closer to, say, 1986, where the world of orange jerseys and Bucco Bruce and bags on heads await them.

Consider how much everyone loved the Bucs of recent years, and how little everyone seems to regard the Bucs of this year. Consider there are still fans who wonder where all the excellence went, and those who think that, just maybe, Lynch took it with him when he left.

Now, I ask again:

Do you cheer?

Fate seems to be having a laugh at the Bucs' expense. Not only are they lousy, but their ancestors keep coming in, week-by-week, to laugh last. Last week, it was Warren Sapp who took a chunk of Tampa Bay. This week, it's John Lynch. Let's see: New Orleans has Aaron Stecker and Chicago has Thomas Jones and Atlanta has Rich McKay and Arizona has Shaun King. Not to panic anyone, but I understand that, any day, San Diego might sign Keith McCants.

This week, then, feel free to hail Lynch, old Captain Crunch.

Finally, he gets to play against some receivers who are even slower than he is.

I'm kidding, mostly. As a centerfielder, Lynch had lost a little range, but frankly, he never did cause stopwatches to burst into flame. In case you're interested, Lynch is playing well. He has left assorted bruises on a few receivers, and already, he has become a cog in the Broncos' good start. Already, they have fallen in love with him in Denver.

You understand that, don't you? Start listing the great Bucs, and Lynch comes in at No. 4, behind Selmon and Brooks and Sapp, just ahead of Gruber.

For 100 games, for seven seasons, the Bucs defense played at a standard that approached any defense in history. If it turns out that run was this team's Camelot, well, Lynch was Lancelot.

It was here that Lynch became a great player, largely to the surprise of his own organization. They saw him playing in nickel packages, perhaps good enough to play on third down, but certainly not an impact player.

Instead, he became a borderline Hall of Fame player, tough enough to stand in the box to take on the run, quick enough to help in pass coverage. He was the most complete safety since Ronnie Lott. Also, he was a great guy in the community, cheerful and charitable. There was no one around here who didn't adore John Lynch.

He was the guy who knocked out his brother-in-law, who made Barry Sanders look mortal. He was the guy who once went into a pileup with such recklessness that he broke someone's hand. It was Sapp's.

The best part of Lynch, though, the part that helped make him as popular as he was around here, was his unrelenting standards. He expected the Bucs' defense to play well, always. He never hid behind stats or rankings or most-of-the-times. If the Bucs' defense was wobbly, he never had a negative thing to say about the negative things everyone else was saying.

A reminder about Lynch's expectations: Last year, before the plank-walking and the ship-abandoning, Lynch wondered if the Bucs might go 17-0. As late as November, when the signs of muck were evident, he expected the Bucs to right themselves and wind up in another Super Bowl.

Gee. No wonder the team wondered if Lynch had taken too many shots to the head.

Then he was gone, and Bucs fans howled.

Oh, let's be grownups here. Put Lynch back in this lineup and, guess what? The Bucs are still 0-3. For all the teeth-gnashing, all of the protests and e-mails and callers on linetwo, the problems didn't start with the decision to let Lynch go. He didn't play offense, remember? Not since high school.

And, while Lynch wants to lay the blame at the feet of Bruce Allen, the new guy in town, ask yourself this: Do you really think Lynch would have been released if the Bucs defensive coaches were pleading for him to stay at all costs, if Jon Gruden were convinced he would be the impact player he had been in the past? Of course not.

Look, maybe the Bucs did him a favor. Lynch is making more money in Denver than he would have here. He's playing on a team with greater possibilities.

So welcome him back. Call his name if you wish. Cheer his number.

When you're done, could you ask him to bring back what he took when he left?

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