As originally posted here.
As dire as the 2011 season was for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the firing of Raheem Morris and the new beginnings of the Greg Schiano era at One Buc Place, it is hard to imagine that this once proud defensive franchise was sitting atop of the football world nearly a decade ago.
The 2002 football season vaulted and validated a staunch defense many years in the making. At the franchise core, head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin developed the likes of future hall of famers in Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Derrick Brooks.
Prior to Dungy, the Bucs were only able to see greatness through their first head coach in John McKay and quarterback Doug Williams. A Super Bowl was within their grasp in 1980, but no. 3 seeded Los Angeles Rams shut out the Bucs 9-0 thwarting their Lombardi dreams. The next 16 seasons were miserable until complacent owner Hugh Culverhouse literally breathed his last in 1994. When Malcolm Glazer and his sons took over the Buccaneer franchise, they brought in Tony Dungy and sowed the seeds to a winning formula unseen in the previous generation of fans.
Dungy rebuilt the organization with class and discipline. Players’ conduct off the field was just as important as on the field. Together, Dungy and Kiffin made a perennial top ten defense. The pinnacle of the Dungy era was in 1999, when the no. 2 seeded Buccaneers went into St. Louis to battle the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams. The Buccaneers defense stifled the Rams offense holding them to 11 points, but it was enough to hold off the Bucs as they only scored 5. The lack of offense plagued Dungy for the rest of his tenure with his last two years with the franchise resulted in first round exits to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Glazers fired Dungy in 2002 and were in a scramble to find a replacement coach. They hoped to lure Bill Parcells to lead the team even going to the lengths of hiring a colleague of his in Bill Muir to run the offensive line, but he turned them down. They found their man in Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden for a king’s ransom of draft picks. Owner Al Davis received the Bucs’ first and second round draft picks in the 2002 season, a first round choice in the 2003 season and a second rounder in 2004. The Glazers would hope their investment would hope to reap the benefits of getting that offensive edge that would carry their defensive Super Bowl-ready team over the hump even if it is to sacrifice the long term future of the franchise. With Dungy gone, Monty Kiffin remained to keep the defense afloat.
The 2002 season would not only mark changes with the Buccaneer offense, but also its placement in the NFL. It would mark the first season of realignment where the league opted for four divisions in each conference eliminating the central division in lieu of the North and South. The Buccaneers would move to the NFC South along with former NFC West teams in the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers.
The key acquisitions of the Buccaneer offseason were Jaguars receiver Keenan McCardell and Cardinals running back Michael Pittman.
After going 3-1 in the preseason, the debut of Jon Gruden’s Buccaneers fell short in overtime against the New Orleans Saints stemming from an errant punt play intercepted for a touchdown. The Bucs would go on to win their next five games a combined 123-30 with a suffocating and opportunistic defense with the offense doing enough like it has before while still searching for its identity with the likes of the Baltimore Ravens, Rams, Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns.
The streak came to a crashing halt when Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Bucs on Oct. 20, 20-10 at Veterans Stadium. The Bucs would win their next four sweeping the Panthers and defeating their former NFC Central rivals in the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings.
The Bucs would then drop their second game to the Saints on Dec. 1 by a field goal before they recovered the following week and crushed Michael Vick and the Falcons, 34-10, to sweep their series at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs would close out the regular season winning the remaining two of three games against NFC Central foes in the Detroit Lions, 23-20, and shutting out the Chicago Bears, 15-0, and dropping one against the Pittsburgh Steelers, 17-7.
The Buccaneers found themselves the second seed in the NFC and securing a playoff bye. Quarterback Brad Johnson was awarded team MVP. The defense was set, but how would the offense do, especially with an ailing quarterback in Johnson? After an emotional win against the New York Giants, the San Francisco Giants came to Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 12, 2003 for their divisional round matchup. The opportunistic Buccaneers sacked Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia four times, forcing five turnovers and held them to two field goals. Brad Johnson came back and threw for 196 yards and two touchdowns while fullback Mike Alstott contributed two more scores. This marks the first playoff game the Niners have been held without a touchdown since 1986. The final score was 31-6.
The Buccaneers would exorcise a few of their demons in the NFC Championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles in what would be the final Eagle game played at Veterans Stadium. Prior to this game, Tampa Bay never won a road playoff game or a game in temperatures below 32 degrees.
The pressure started early for the Bucs when returner, Brian Mitchell returned the opening kickoff, 70-yards and set up a 20-yard touchdown run for the initial score. The Bucs responded with kicker Martín Gramática’s 48-yard field goal to make it 7-3. After the Eagles’ next possession, punter Lee Johnson pinned the Bucs to their own 4-yard line. The Bucs proceeded to drive 96-yards capping off with Alstott’s 1-yard touchdown run to put the Bucs ahead, 10-7. Eagles’ kicker, David Akers tied the game midway through the second quarter hitting a field goal from 30 yards.
The Bucs responded with a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive which capped off in a 9-yard catch from receiver Keyshawn Johnson from Brad Johnson. The Eagles tried to respond but McNabb fumbled the ball at the 24-yard line and recovered by defensive end Simeon Rice.
Turnovers would doom the Eagles Super Bowl hopes as the Bucs never looked back as McNabb lost another fumble and the Bucs would score a field goal to make it 20-10. The final nail on the Eagles’ season would be made when Ronde Barber intercepted McNabb’s pass and returned it 92 yards for the game’s final score with 3:12 left in the game. The final score would be 27-10.
Super Bowl XXXVII has a couple of nicknames—1) The Pirate Bowl (Raiders vs. Buccaneers) and 2) The Gruden Bowl. When Gruden left for the Bucs, his successor was Bill Callahan, who ran the same system that Gruden ran when he was with the Raiders. So similar in fact that during the post-game notes, Gruden emulated league MVP quarterback Rich Gannon’s tendencies and while he didn’t do very well in recreating them, the Buccaneer defense learned them down to a tee. Safety John Lynch was very vocal about what he was seeing during the game.
The game marked the first time the league’s no. 1 overall offense in the Oakland Raiders faced the no. 1 overall defense in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As the moniker suggests, “defense won this championship [indefinitely].”
There was no real drama. Gruden pretty much had both playbooks and it was a massacre. After trading off field goals, the Bucs poured it on, intercepting Gannon a Super Bowl record, five times and returning three for touchdowns. The defense and the offense matched point-for-point in scoring with 21 points a piece with special teams contributing for 6 points with the final score being, 48-21. The Raiders were able to muster up 18 more points in the second half when the game was already out of reach. Derrick Brooks put the cap to the game when he intercepted Gannon and returned the ball 44-yards for the touchdown. On the Raiders’ following drive safety Dwight Smith intercepted a tipped pass and returned it 50 yards scoring the 200th TD in Super Bowl history. Gruden became the youngest head coach since John Madden to win the Super Bowl. Buccaneer safety Dexter Jackson was named MVP.
The legacy of the 2002 Buccaneers would produce a few notable names in coaching: Raheem Morris, who would succeed Gruden in 2009, was defensive quality control coach and Mike Tomlin, the defensive back coach who would go on to win Super Bowl XLIII (breaking Gruden’s record as youngest to win a Super Bowl) as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.