By Luke Easterling
Managing Editor, The Draft Wire at USA Today (@LukeEasterling)
As any born-and-raised Tampa native like myself will tell you, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers losing football games was as much a part of our city’s culture as Cuban sandwiches and drivers who still don’t realize it’s illegal to have your hazards on in the rain.
After joining the league in 1976, the Bucs began their pro football legacy with a historic stretch of futility, losing their first 26 regular season games. My dad and his incredible afro endured many of those games from the unforgiving metal bleachers of The Big Sombrero.
But my dad was also there in December of 1979, when the upstart Fighting Creamsicles hosted the Philadelphia Eagles in its first ever NFL playoff game. My mom played a trumpet solo at halftime with her high school band, no doubt giving Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon and the Bucs the inspiration they needed to take down the Eagles 24-17 and head to the NFC title game.
It wouldn’t be the last time the Eagles would play a leading role in the Bucs’ playoff history, but the next few scenes in that postseason rivalry would have to wait a generation.
After back-to-back early playoff exits at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys in 1981 and 1982, Tampa Bay would have to wait 15 years to return to the playoffs. Over that stretch, the Bucs lost at least 10 games in every season but one (7-9 in 1995). After spending their first nine seasons under John McKay, the “Yucks” went through four head coaches over the next 10 seasons after McKay left.
A New McKay, A New Era
It was McKay’s son, Bucs general manager Rich McKay, who would help set the foundation for a new era in the franchise’s history.
In 1995, McKay spent his pair of first-round picks on pair of in-state defenders and eventual Hall of Famers, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks.
In 1996, Tony Dungy replaced Sam Wyche as head coach.
In 1997, the Bucs shed their bright orange threads for pewter and red, and a losing culture was tossed out with the old laundry. The Bucs started the season 5-0, making the playoffs and beating Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions at home before falling to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field.
Overshadowed by the uniform change was the third-round selection of another building block of what would become a defensive powerhouse. The Bucs took Jamael Oronde Barber, a scrappy, undersized corner from Virginia.
“Ronde” would one day provide the most iconic moment in the team’s history. But we’re not there yet. We’re closer but still shy of the prize.
In 1999, the Bucs sniffed the Super Bowl for the second time. But just as they did in 1979, Tampa Bay would come single digits shy of victory against the Rams.
Playoff berths came again in 2000 and 2001, but the Bucs were frozen out of the postseason in each appearance by those winged green giants from the north.
In 2002, Tampa Bay was riding high into Veterans Stadium at 5-1, with the looks of a team that could do something special. This time, it would be different in Philly, right?
Eagles 20, Bucs 10.
The Pewter Pirates should have known then that if they were to ever bring home a championship to the 813, they would have to vanquish the frigid demons of The Vet. Fate would deliver in the postseason. The 12-4 Bucs dominated the San Francisco 49ers in the second round, sending them back to Philly for the NFC title game.
Removing the Frozen Monkey
As the national media would tell it, the result was a foregone conclusion. The Bucs had never won game in below-freezing temperatures. It was to be the last game in Veterans Stadium, with the Eagles’ new facility set to open the following season. You could count on one hand how many people outside Hillsborough County thought the Bucs had a frozen battery’s chance in hell to win the game.
It didn’t take long for the pundits to look smart. It took the Eagles an opening kickoff return and two plays from scrimmage to go up 7-0. Combined with the Rocky-inspired intro from Sylvester Stallone, The Vet was rocking and the Eagles were rolling.
But January 19, 2003 was a religious experience for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and all their fans. The revival began with a 71-yard catch-and-run by Joe Jurevicius, who wasn’t expected to play with his newborn son fighting for his life back in Tampa. The anguished father channeled his son’s spirit, said teammate John Lynch, sparking a 96-yard touchdown drive to give the Bucs the lead.
The rest of the team fed off that energy. The Eagles tied the game at 10 with a field goal, but the Bucs responded with a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. A long drive by the Eagles just before the half would end with a strip-sack by Simeon Rice, who snatched the ball away from high school teammate Donovan McNabb and recovered it himself.
On the first drive of the third quarter, McNabb would get a taste of Barber, the tiny terror who would eventually strike the final blow to bring down the silver-winged juggernaut. On this play, Barber sneaked down to the edge of McNabb’s blind side, flashed past would-be blockers, knocked the ball from the QB’s throwing hand, and Bucs’ teammate Ellis Wyms made the recovery.
Another Martin Gramatica field goal stretched Tampa Bay’s lead to 10 points just before the end of the third quarter. It didn’t generate optimism for the Bucs’ fans. There was an expectation that the Bucs, as always, would find a way to leave The Vet with a loss.
As McNabb methodically drove the Eagles down the field in the fourth quarter, that sinking feeling grew in the stomach of every pewter-clad parishioner. When McNabb escaped the clutches of multiple Buccaneer defenders to avoid a sack, he found Antonio Freeman at the 11-yard-line for a first down, the doubt grew into legitimate fear. With more than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, there was plenty of time for an epic collapse by a franchise quite accustomed to being the NFL’s favorite laughingstock.
Ronde Barber would have none of it. And it was this play where my name and the name of every long-suffering Buccaneers fan was on the back of Barber’s jersey.
The Charlottesville native sneaked down into the gap between the guard and the tackle, approaching the same side where he surprised McNabb earlier. No. 5 in green is in a rhythm, and he knows the Tampa Bay defense needs to do something to wreck his momentum. Another well-timed surprise by a blitzing nickel corner would be just the thing.
McNabb glanced over and saw Barber tiptoeing up to the line of scrimmage. He knew. But Barber was one step ahead, baiting the Eagles’ QB.
As McNabb glanced back to catch the shotgun snap, he took his eyes off Barber long enough to give the Buccaneers’ 5-10, 184-pound stealth artist time to retreat, hide behind the violent sea of giant blockers and rushers, and set his trap.
McNabb, the league’s former No. 2 overall pick looked back to his left, looking again for Freeman who sat down in the empty patch of concrete carpet of the Vet that Barber just vacated. With the extra rusher coming, McNabb knew he had to pull the trigger quickly but he was confident that he beat Barber on this play.
As the ball left McNabb’s hand bound for Freeman’s grasp, the Barber appeared from thin air like a pewter-helmeted ghost, snatching the ball from its intended target and haunting Eagles fans for years to come with his flight toward the opposite end zone.
My dad (minus the afro), my mom (minus the trumpet), my siblings, my friends; we all watched as Barber raced 92 yards down the home sideline, streaking by an endless line of puffy emerald jackets, their wearers painfully aware of the cringe-worthy temperature as if Barber was a specter haunting the Vet.
But for us, Barber delivered us from years of torment and ridicule: the 26 consecutive losses, the 15-year playoff drought, and the Eagle-shaped postseason monkey on the Bucs’ collective back. As he crossed into the end zone amidst a shower of rage-filled snowballs and God only knows what else, he gave his patented point to the name plate on the back of his jersey in celebration.
That name plate could just have easily said EASTERLING across the back. It could have read the name of every kid who grew up a “Yucks” fan, constantly the butt of every joke hurled by their front-running Cowboys-Packers-Steelers-49ers fan friends. It could have been adorned with the name of every one of us who waited in the parking lot of Raymond James Stadium into the cold, rainy, wee hours of the next morning, as the team returned from the City of Brotherly Loss to share with us the George Halas Trophy.
The Bucs finished off their historic run with a 48-21 dismantling of the Oakland Raiders the following week in Super Bowl XXXVII, but that result felt like a foregone conclusion after Barber raced 92 yards into Tampa Bay lore. Nobody was going to stop the Bucs until the Lombardi finally rested at Himes, Dale Mabry and MLK.
At that moment, we were all Ronde Barber. We had all overcome. Finally, we were all champions.
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