Nickolas Loza | April 25th, 2020
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenses from 1996 to 2005 were absolutely electric. They were rated in the top 10 in points allowed during every season of this stretch. They were led by defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who is the franchises leader in all-time sacks, Derrick Brooks, who was a do it all linebacker, and Ronde Barber, who is the franchises all-time leader in interceptions. These defenses were built by excellent drafting, excellent coaching, and all of the stars aligning. The first four years of the Buccaneers’ great defense were the building block pieces to a historically great defense.
The Building Blocks of Greatness
In 1996, it was a down year which was usual for the Buccaneers, but in this year they drafted running back Mike Alstott, who would help the offense out with his overpowering style of running. Nothing else of note really happened in 1996, but the Buccaneers had the eighth rank defense. In 1997 however, they had their first breakthrough season, they went 10-6 and won a wild card playoff game Vs. the Detroit Lions 20-10. This Bucs team was lead defensively by middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who was a First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl bowler, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who made the Pro Bowl, linebacker Derrick Brooks, who made the Pro Bowl, and safety John Lynch, who made the Pro Bowl also. Collectively, the Bucs had four players with 7.5 sacks.
This was the first year of the Bucs being great, but in 1998 they had another down year but had much of the same defense in the way of Pro Bowlers. 1999 was the biggest year in a long, long time for the Bucs, who went 11-5, won the NFC Central Division, and made the NFC Championship Game, where they took the eventual Super Bowl Champion St. Louis Rams to the brink of elimination, where they lost 11-6. This was the second-lowest score for an NFC Championship Game ever, the lowest ever was another Bucs loss to the then Los Angeles Rams in 1980. In 1999, the Bucs had three All-Pro Players on defense and four Pro Bowlers overall. These four years would be the building blocks of many successful years to come.
The Times of Change and the Search for the Super Bowl
In 2000, the Tampa Bay Bucs had a 10-6 season and made the playoffs. They lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Game, however, but they still had four Pro Bowlers, and three All-Pro players on defense. In 2001 the exact same season happened, except with a 9-7 record, and an even more embarrassing loss to the Eagles. This season, however, would bring a change. Head Coach Tony Dungy, who had developed this great defense, was relieved of his head coaching duties, and in came former Oakland Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden, who immediately instilled his “in your face” style into the Bucs, and in 2002 they finally broke through.
In 2002, with the help of Jon Gruden, the Bucs defense was first in the league in points allowed, only allowing 196 points throughout the entire regular season. The Buccaneers mashed everything together perfectly for a 12-4 season, and the number two seed in the NFC. They took care of business at home against the San Francisco 49ers and booked a date with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, who had eliminated the Bucs the prior two seasons. This time though the Buccaneers got the better of the Eagles, thanks in large part to a Ronde Barber pick-six, which always be remembered as the defining moment of this game. This game was the last game at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, so it left a bad taste in the Eagles fans mouths, much to the delight of the Bucs, who celebrated with chants mocking the Eagles and this victory would fuel a Super Bowl demolition.
In an odd twist of fate, the Bucs faced Jon Gruden’s former team in the Super Bowl, and they easily pushed the Raiders aside, holding MVP quarterback Rich Gannon and the explosive Raiders offense. The reason why they were able to win so easily is the Raiders never changed anything offensively, so the Bucs knew all the plays that were going to be run because they practiced all the Raiders plays all week long. The Bucs forced five Raider turnovers, made Rich Gannon’s life a nightmare by sacking him five times, and intercepting him five times. The Super Bowls fitting MVP was cornerback Dexter Jackson, who recorded two interceptions on the day. Other major contributors were safety Dwight Smith, who took his two interceptions to the endzone, and Derrick Brooks who sealed the game with his own pick-six. This would be the peak of the Bucs however, as next season brought a whole new world.
A Tale of Two Teams
In 2003 the Bucs fell off hard, their defense was still great, but with a tougher schedule, and a Super Bowl hangover to boot, the Bucs went 7-9 and missed the playoffs. Nothing else really eventful happened that season. The offense was stagnant all year, which would become the trend for the Bucs. That’s why it’s a tale of two teams because it’s a team with an excellent defense and a lackluster offense. In 2004 it was the exact same thing, except an even more nauseating record of 5-11. In 2005, the final year of the Bucs dominating defensive streak of nine straight years of having a top 10 defense, the Bucs went 11-5 and made the playoffs. They lost in the first round to the Washington Redskins, where the offense let them down. This was the official end to the streak, because in 2006 their defense was awful, ranking 21st.
This era of the Buccaneers defense came to an official end in 2010, where it was their last top 10 defensive year. Ever since then their defenses haven’t ranked in the top 20 once. Two of the Bucs great players from this era, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks are both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Ronde Barber might be in the hall of fame one day. John Lynch will definitely be in the Hall of Fame one day, as he has been a finalist multiple times, but has missed the mark just slightly two years in a row. All in all, this defensive unit should have four, maybe even five Hall of Famers when it’s all said and done for these players. Truly an outstanding defense.
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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images