Defense mechanisms: The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

USA TODAY Sports

More than a decade ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Oakland Raiders for the franchise's only Super Bowl win and their last win of any kind in the postseason. How did they do it? They found an identity.

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Tampa's a defensive city by nature. Where the rest of the country sees Miami as a city with a very specific cultural identity and Orlando as a city with a specific corporate one, Tampa is just ... well, what? The place with all the strip clubs? (There are many, but not on every corner.) A Florida Man haven of drunks wielding improvised weapons and con artists? (Nobody I knew was the victim or perpetrator of a bowling pin assault.) The butt of a ton of easy jokes? (Fine, I'm guilty of this.)

Part of why Tampa never seems, to me at least, to have a clear civic identity is demographic: according to Census Bureau estimates, only 34.8% of the residents in the Tampa/St. Pete metropolitan area were born in Florida. Tampa, much like Florida overall, is full of people who have origins elsewhere. It's a little like building a community out of whoever happens to be waiting in an airport terminal.

There are other factors, of course - suburban sprawl, periods where the only business growth seemed to be in big box stores and chain restaurants. Whatever the reason, you're left with a very large metropolitan area that doesn't know what it is, only that it doesn't want to be the subject of all the cracks and generalizations that get heaped upon it.

For most of their history, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were just as ill-defined. There were the easy jokes about the 0-14 season or the orange uniforms. The Bucs quarterbacks who went on to win the Super Bowl -- with another team. That whole thing where they used the first overall pick on Bo Jackson even though he'd said he'd never play for Tampa. And then refused to trade him.

Even the brief period of franchise success from 1979-1982 felt like the exception, not the rule. That's understandable when you finish with a losing record for twelve consecutive seasons. The only identities you could associate with this team were negative. So the Bucs did what everyone else from Tampa does: they got defensive.

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(Al Messerschmidt - Getty Images Sport)

It started in the 1993 Draft, when the Bucs spent three of their first four picks on defenders. The local media, who felt what the team really needed was a quarterback, found this approach less than thrilling. They turned out to be right about the first two selections; pass rushing end Eric Curry only recorded 12 sacks in five seasons, and linebacker Demetrious DuBose only started five games in his four seasons. The third defensive pick? A safety from Stanford who'd been converted from quarterback: future nine-time Pro Bowler John Lynch.

Two years later, the Bucs drafted heavy on defense again. The major story was Warren Sapp's tumble down the board to the twelfth overall pick, where Tampa finally picked him despite concerns that Sapp had failed multiple drug tests as a Miami Hurricane. But the Bucs traded up for a second pick in that first round, sending two second rounders to Dallas for the 28th pick overall. They used that to select Derrick Brooks, who would go on to be named Defensive Player of the Year and star in one of the best NFL commercials ever.

This strategy didn't pay off in the win-loss column right away, as the Buccaneers started the 1995 season 5-2 and then lost seven of their last nine games. That collapse meant the end of the Sam Wyche era in Tampa, but there were signs things might be improving. For the first time since 1980, the Bucs had held their collective opponents under 350 points on the season, and only five quarterbacks that faced the Tampa defense threw for multiple touchdowns. You wouldn't label Tampa a good team, no, but, if you looked closely, you could see the beginnings of an identity forming.

So the building process continued. Ronde Barber and Alshermond Singleton were taken in the middle rounds of the ‘97 Draft. With the 45th pick the next year, Tampa selected Brian Kelly. In 1999, the Bucs used their first pick on Booger McFarland, and a fourth rounder on Dexter Jackson.

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Eight players selected over the course of seven years, some near the top of the proceedings, and others closer to the bottom. Five of them started on defense in the ‘99 season, when the team advanced to the NFC Championship for the second time in franchise history.

By then, the identity had emerged: the former laughingstock, the perennial bottom dwellers, were a defensive power that could hold your offense down for 60 minutes and win ugly, offense-starved games. They'd held twelve of their opponents under twenty points that regular season, and in their 14-13 win in the Divisional round, the only touchdown Washington scored was on a kick return.

And that reputation was about to be tested against Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, and the league's most dominant offense. We're not talking slightly dominant, either -- the Rams put up 526 points in 1999, and the next closest team was a full eighty points behind them. They stormed into the playoffs having put up 400 yards or more on the last five teams they played, and then put 405 on Minnesota. Suffocating this offense seemed impossible.

Kurt Warner's first pass of the game wound up in the hands of defensive end Steve White. (Yes, the SB Nation contributor. I know, he's done a lot more than you and I have.) Tampa Bay held the St. Louis offense to one field goal and one touchdown. Marshall Faulk did almost nothing of consequence. Warner threw two other picks. The same offense that had been rolling over opposing defenses with regularity barely scraped its way to 300 yards.

It wasn't enough; the Rams only put up 11 points, but it was more than Tampa's six. Whether the Bucs realized it or not, their identity was mutating. The team that had defined itself with a defense that could keep it in any game now had an offense that was doing the same for opponents.

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The mutation grew in the 2000 postseason, when the Buccaneers went on the road to face Philadelphia in a Wild Card game and lost 21-3. It got worse in 2001 when they returned to Philly and still couldn't get in the end zone a single time. (Never mind that the Eagles teams they faced had excellent defenses of their own.) The indignity of being known as a team that couldn't win because it wasn't good enough was being replaced with something more frustrating: being known as a team that was good enough to win, but still couldn't.

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(Peter Muhly - Getty Images Sport)

So out went Tony Dungy, the man who'd taken the Bucs to the playoffs more than every other coach in franchise history combined. Gone too was Warrick Dunn, one of the few athletes in Tampa history it felt like everyone loved, deemed too expensive of an asset and allowed to leave for Atlanta. Ownership was convinced they had to bring in someone truly outstanding as head coach, and they did the ridiculous to make it happen: they gave the Raiders four draft picks for Jon Gruden.

Think about how patently absurd that is. The same team that had dragged itself out of the NFL's basement with smart, patient drafting was now giving up its ability to add future talent for somebody who would never play a snap. And Tampa wasn't even getting a coach with proven credentials -- Gruden's teams had gone 2-2 in the playoffs, and, in their two losses, the offense scored a grand total of one touchdown.

If it didn't work? The mortgage jokes alone would have been unbearable.

Here's the thing: it sort of didn't. Here's how the Tampa Bay offense ranked in Dungy's last three seasons:

1999: 28th in yards per play, 23rd in turnovers, 27th in points scored
2000: 19th YPP, 5th TO, 7th points
2001: 28th YPP, 5th TO, 15th points

And here's where the Bucs finished after one year under Gruden, Offensive Savior Of The Universe.

2002: 23rd YPP, 6th TO, 18th points.

The old conservative, mediocre-scoring offense had yielded to ... a new conservative, mediocre-scoring offense. That left only one path for improvement: the defense had to jump from excellent to otherworldly.

This wasn't entirely a failing attributable to Gruden. The plan was probably not to build a juggernaut on defense and just scrape by on offense; the same management that drafted McFarland, Sapp, Singleton, Brooks, Kelly, Barber, Lynch, and Jackson had tried to find offensive skill position talent, and failed. Only three starters on the 2002 offense started their careers in Tampa, and only one, Mike Alstott, played a skill position. Put it this way: I once owned an Alvin Harper jersey. That says a lot of unflattering things about me, but I was a child at the time and the Bucs front office was not.

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Still, management deserved the credit for drafting eight of the starters on defense, including the entire secondary. Another starter, linebacker Shelton Quarles, had been signed as a free agent in 1997. The only spot where Tampa had relatively new blood was defensive end, where they'd added Simeon Rice in 2001 and Greg Spires in the offseason before 2002.

The Bucs went 12-4 in the regular season, the best record in franchise history, and the defensive numbers they finished with were eye-popping. 196 points given up, the fifth-lowest total ever in a 16 game season. The second team to ever face at least 500 passing attempts and allow less than 2500 yards. The eleventh team to record a sack and a takeaway in all 16 games they played. A majority of Tampa's opponents didn't even get to 150 passing yards. It was impressive and outstanding and several other laudatory adjectives, and it wasn't going to mean a thing if the team didn't win in the postseason.

First up was a home game against the 49ers, who'd just needed a 17-point comeback in the fourth quarter, a botched field goal attempt by the Giants and an uncalled pass interference penalty to get a one-point win. San Francisco wasn't a top offense, but they did have Terrell Owens, the league leader in receiving touchdowns, who'd just torched New York for 177 yards and two scores.

Tampa's defense held the Niners to two field goals, picked off Jeff Garcia three times, and only allowed 35 yards to Owens. The 25-point win was encouraging, but the pessimistic fan didn't have to wait long for cause to worry. For the third year in a row, the Bucs were going to have to head into Veterans Stadium. Win or lose, this was scheduled to be the last game the Eagles played in the Vet.

This wasn't a significantly different Philly team than the ones that had knocked Tampa out in 2001 and 2000. They played excellent defense, ran the ball pretty well, and tried to avoid turning the ball over. And the game began in a way that suggested the Buccaneers were in for their usual Philadelphia fate, as the Eagles took the opening kickoff back to the Tampa Bay 26 and scored two plays later.

But the defense was undeterred, forcing three straight punts before Philly finally got back on the scoreboard with a second quarter field goal that tied the game, 10-10. They kept pressuring Donovan McNabb, with sacks that turned into fumble recoveries on the last Eagles drive of the first half and the first of the second half, and, again and again, Tampa forced the Philadelphia offense to punt.

And yet. The offense hadn't done enough to put the game out of reach with 6:30 to go, as the Eagles had the ball at the Tampa Bay 18 trailing by ten points. What happened next was ... well, just go to the 4:10 mark here and watch for yourself.

When Ronde Barber stepped in front of Antonio Freeman to grab that pass, he likely changed the story of the entire season for the Buccaneers. What could have been another disappointing playoffs, where the offense couldn't do enough to back up the defense, where the weaknesses outweighed the strengths, where Tampa was a threat but not a winner, became the greatest year ever for the franchise. Just getting to the Super Bowl proved how far the Bucs had come.

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(Doug Pensinger - Getty Images Sport)

Given that they'd be facing the Raiders, the easy storyline was obvious: Gruden's new team facing his old one. The better angle was that, once again, Tampa's defense would be tasked with stopping one of the league's most explosive offenses. Oakland ranked near the top of the heap in nearly every passing statistic, and they'd been largely unstoppable through the air in their two playoff games, with five touchdowns to just one interception and a completion percentage near seventy. Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and Charlie Garner had each finished the season with 900 receiving yards or more. In the entirety of the NFC, there were only 12 players who'd hit that mark.

If you weren't rooting for Oakland or Tampa Bay, you probably don't remember much about this Super Bowl. The Raiders picked off Brad Johnson's second throw, and scored first with a Sebastian Janikowski field goal. The Bucs responded with a field goal drive of their own.

And then the vise started to close on the Raiders. From 3-3 forward, Rich Gannon dropped back to pass 16 times in the first half. Combining the net yardage of the five passes Gannon completed and the two times he took a sack, Oakland gained 33 yards. Two other Oakland throws were intercepted by the Buccaneers. Those were run back for a total of 34 yards. To reiterate: the best passing attack in the NFL was getting out-gained through the air by the defense it was facing.

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(Donald Miralle - Getty Images Sport)

Tampa's offense didn't waste the opportunity, scoring on three of their four drives in the second quarter to give the Bucs a 20-3 lead. It was the largest Super Bowl halftime deficit in eight years, and league executives were probably tearing their hair out thinking about it from a ratings perspective.

Seriously, this is the game's graph of win probability from Pro Football Reference:

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It goes from almost dead-even at the end of the first quarter to a 95.5% that Tampa would win at the end of the second.

The third and fourth quarters were just gratuitous. Oakland's offense managed to eke out two touchdowns, which might have been impressive had Tampa's defense not scored three of their own, all off interceptions. The Buccaneer offense didn't do much in the second half, but it hardly needed to -- once the lead had grown to 31 points with less than twenty minutes to play, the only important goal was to avoid turnovers. Look at that win probability graph again. That patient is very clearly dead.

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To a disinterested observer, the rout was probably not particularly entertaining. You can only watch so many pick sixes before it starts to feel like a mismatched game of Madden. There was also a diminishing returns element: in a game with so many big plays by one defense, the outstanding starts to become ordinary.

And it started to become suspicious to some people, or at least odd. There had to be a reason why the Bucs had so thoroughly dismantled the Raiders. It was because Tampa knew Oakland's audibles, and it was rumored those hadn't been changed since Gruden's departure. It was because the Raiders were distracted by Barret Robbins's public struggles with mental illness. (If you waited long enough, it was because Bill Callahan secretly hated his team and threw the game.) Even their Super Bowl win couldn't be about the Bucs. The victory couldn't be the result of a historically excellent defense playing at its best, destroying all challengers and rendering even the best offenses impotent. It was a fluke, or luck, or a hustle.

It was a weirdly Tampa outcome: to be a champion who wasn't identified as one, doubted when you literally had nothing left to prove. But I imagine the public perception never mattered to the players who left San Diego victorious, especially the ones who'd spent years building the team up. You only need to be defensive when you lose.

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