Football season is right around the corner. After an off-season of uncertainty and boredom, I am excited beyond measure that I can break out the pewter and red beer cozies next Friday at 8 pm when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers open the pre-season against the Kansas City Chiefs on national television. And I know I’m not the only one whose football fever is reaching the boiling point.
However, the cynics out there always have something to say. Yes, these games don’t actually count, and the starters will likely see less than a half. OK, we’ll be watching guys who are probably going to be bagging groceries in a month. Worst of all, yes, we still have to wait an entire week to see some Buccaneers football. But I say that just gives us one more week to get fired up for our first taste of what promises to be another special year for Josh Freeman and company. And what better way to whet our pigskin appetites than to relive a moment of past Buccaneers glory?
January 15, 2000: Divisional playoffs – Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Washington Redskins
I know that some of you are already confused. Why not go for the moment of ultimate glory and the Super Bowl XXXVII run? Well, if you’re like me, you have seen that DVD about 50 times since the lockout began (ok, I have a problem) and while seeing Ronde Barber silence the city of Boozerly Love will never get old (neither will Dwight Smith, Derrick Brooks, and Dwight Smith again), adding a little flavor to your football nostalgia is healthy. I think. If you’re still not convinced, just bear with me.
The other reason I chose this game is admittedly selfish. My younger brother and I had a pair of tickets to witness the first playoff game ever held in Raymond James, and it was the moment that solidified my Buccaneer fanhood for the rest of my life. But enough about me, let’s get to the game.
This game was in many ways a preview of the NFC Championship against the Rams the following week. Washington entered the game with the league’s second ranked offense in both yards and points scored behind only the Greatest Show on Turf. The Bucs, as always, countered with one of the leagues stingiest defenses which ranked third in points and yards. And just like any Buccaneers game under coach Tony Dungy, the game turned into a defensive struggle as both teams grappled for field position.
After an entire quarter of offensive futility, Washington was able to force the Bucs to punt from the shadow of their own goalposts and took over at the Bucs 43-yard line. Washington was able to pick up two first downs (they only had 10 in the game) before settling for a 28-yard Brett Conway field goal and take a 3-0 lead into the half. In terms of the late ‘90s, the Bucs had Washington right where they wanted them.
However, the opening kickoff would change that feeling immediately. Martin Grammatica’s kickoff reached the goal line, but returner Brian Mitchell sprinted his way to a then playoff record 100 yard kickoff return touchdown. Adding to my personal agony at the time was the fact that my seat in the south endzone was about as direct a sightline of the return as any in the building. More importantly, the Buccaneers faced a 10-0 deficit, and to make matters worse, rookie quarterback Shaun King was picked off by veteran corner Darrell Green, leading to another Conway field goal and a 13-0 deficit.
I can vividly remember the pit in my stomach that developed between what would be Washington’s final points of the game and the ensuing kickoff. In fact, the whole stadium sat relatively quiet during the absurdly long TV timeout. The game looked even more in doubt when the Buccaneer offense once again was forced to punt. But that’s when a Bucs legend decided to step up and make a play.
With time winding down in the 3rd quarter, safety John Lynch made a game changing interception along the sideline and energized the Bucs offense. Aided by a long pass interference penalty, Tampa Bay was able to move the ball 73 yards in just six plays –almost half their yardage total for the entire game– capped off when another Bucs legend, Mike Alstott, made one of the signature plays of his career.
The play was designed to go to the right side and apparently Washington knew that. Mike was hit at the 5-yard line, but managed to shed the tackle of linebacker Derek Smith. He then side-stepped defensive end Marco Coleman and was simultaneously plowed into by a pair of defenders. Alstott absorbed the hit, took the ball around the left side of the line, and outran the entire Redskins defense for what was probably the most exciting 1 yard touchdown run in the history of organized football. Not only was that play a microcosm of the A-Train’s career, but, more importantly, it gave the Buccaneers a new lease on life. At the end of three quarters, Washington’s lead was now 13-7.
However, any story about the 1999 Buccaneers would not be complete without an enormous play by arguably the best Tampa Bay defensive line in history. Bucs defensive end Steve White sacked quarterback Brad Johnson (yes, that Brad Johnson) for the second time in the game and forced a crucial fumble. The fumble was recovered by the notorious Warren Sapp, who also recorded a sack in the game, and set the Bucs up in business on the Redskins’ 32-yard line. Thanks in part to a few key throws by King and Dungy’s gamble to go for it on 4th and 1, the Buccaneers found playoff glory when King rolled out and lofted a soft pass to tight end John Davis for the winning score, 14-13. The Bucs were able to hold off the final Washington charge as Johnson could not handle the snap on what would have been a 51-yard field goal attempt to win the game. Raymond James went ballistic, and, somewhere in the nosebleed section, a lifelong fan was born.
Well, that’s all for this trip down memory lane. Hopefully it helps you survive the next (and final!) painstaking week without football. Look for a few more stories of glories past as the preseason continues and the anticipation for the 2011 regular season ramps up. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find my Super Bowl XXXVII DVD. What’s that honey…? Oh, right…it’s still in the DVD player…