Pro Bowlers: Donald Penn
Oh, what could have been. Coming off of a disastrous 3-13 season in 2009, the 2010 Bucs were a team without expectations. Most wrote them off as too young, too inexperienced, and not nearly talented enough. Head coach Raheem Morris and starting quarterback Josh Freeman were both entering their second year with the team, while some guy named Gerald McCoy was entering his rookie season. Overall, the depth chart was flooded with rookies and inexperienced players, and yet some how, some way, the team managed to achieve a 10-6 record and one of the more entertaining seasons in recent Buccaneer memory.
The main story line of this season was Josh Freeman. The 17th pick out of Kansas State, Freeman was looking to rebound from a horrific rookie campaign in which he threw 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, along with a meager 54 percent of completed passes. How Freeman played would make or break the season, and with two rookies starting at wide receiver – Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – the prospects of a breakout seemed bleak. Then the season started, and the magic of “Yungry” – Raheem Morris’s rallying cry – began to play out.
After a last-minute win against the Rams to put the Bucs at 4-2, Morris declared his team to be the best team in the NFC. Suddenly, Josh Freeman was a big play savant with the arm strength to make spectacular throws all over the field. He was clutch in the fourth quarter, and became known for late game comebacks. Mike Williams was a contested catch monster, scoring difficult touchdowns on a weekly basis. Un-drafted free agent running back
, best known for punching an opponent in college and then again with the Titans in training camp, burst on to the scene, leaping over desperate defenders too afraid to tackle him high. Behind the trio of Freeman, Blount and Williams, the Buccaneer offense, in spite of all its inexperience, was working, particularly in the second half of games.
The defense was a very talented bunch on paper with potential to be much more if not for injuries and suspension. Gerald McCoy,
, Tanard Jackson, Quincy Black, Aqib Talib and
were all high-usage players that finished the season on I.R. (or suspended in Jackson’s case).
The Bucs’ magic run towards the playoffs ended in cruel fashion, on a late November afternoon in Raymond James, against the Detroit Lions. I was in attendance that day, and bared witness to the worst professional call I’ll probably ever see. With just under two minutes remaining in the game, the Bucs trailed Detroit 17-20. Freeman orchestrated a clutch drive – something he’d grown accustomed to over the course of the season – and got Tampa into the red zone. A perfectly thrown pass to tight end Kellen Winslow in the end zone should have put Tampa up 24-20, requiring a Lion touchdown to win. Instead, the referees called offensive pass interference on Winslow, negating the touchdown, and forcing a Connor Barth field goal. Detroit and their third string quarterback quickly marched down the field, kicked a field goal for overtime, and then eventually won in the extra period. Yungry died on that afternoon.
The rest, of course, is history. Tampa won its final two games to finish 10-6 but narrowly missed out on a playoff berth. Freeman, Williams and Blount simply didn’t have the correct mindset to be the faces of an organization, and each flamed out of Tampa Bay within the next three years. The youngest team in the league that had shown so much promise over the course of 2010, was gone in what felt like the blink of an eye.