Crystal-Clear Anniversary: Bucs Become Champs!

Crystal-Clear Anniversary: Bucs Become Champs!

Set an alarm for 10:16 p.m. on Friday night, Buccaneers fans, if you want to celebrate the most joyous anniversary in franchise history.

It was at that moment on January 26, 2003 – exactly 15 years ago on Friday – that the final seconds ticked off the Super Bowl XXXVII clock in San Diego and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers officially became World Champions. The NFL’s number-one defense bested the Oakland Raiders’ number-one offense with a Super Bowl-record five interceptions off MVP Rich Gannon en route to a dominant 48-21 victory.

On the anniversary gift chart, the traditional choice for year 15 is crystal. That’s fitting because memories of that night surely remain crystal clear to Buccaneer fans who witnessed their team successfully chase down its first Lombardi Trophy.

Simeon Rice racing around left tackle on Oakland’s first drive for the first of Tampa Bay’s five sacks. Dexter Jackson following Jon Gruden’s scouting report and jumping two Rich Gannon seam passes. Jerry Rice on the ground, looking on helplessly as Dwight Smith completes the first of his two pick-sixes. Mike Alstott up the gut. Keenan McCardell in the end zone twice. Derrick Brooks, having plunged in the dagger, unable to hold back tears. Malcolm Glazer lifting the trophy, just seven years after purchasing the team.

The images come back in a rush and they’re almost all happy ones. After Oakland’s Charles Woodson intercepted Brad Johnson on the third play of the game, Rice’s crucial sack held the Raiders to a field goal and the Buccaneers proceeded to score the game’s next 34 points. Jackson’s two interceptions earned him Super Bowl MVP honors and kept Oakland’s offense from gaining any traction in the first half. McCardell scored right before and right after halftime and Smith’s 44-yard touchdown return essentially put the game out of reach.

Oakland mounted a minor fourth-quarter comeback thanks largely to a blocked punt that turned into a touchdown, but Brooks eased any mounting fears back in Tampa with a 44-yard pick-six that capped his NFL Defensive Player of the Year campaign. Smith added a third interception-return touchdown in the game’s waning seconds, the play taking him right up the Bucs’ sideline and past a fist-pumping Gruden. With two seconds left, the Buccaneers kicked off and linebacker Jack Golden tackled Chris Cooper on the final play of the greatest season in franchise annals. The clock read 7:16 at Qualcomm Stadium, 10:16 back in an ecstatic Bay area.

As dominant as the Buccaneers were on that night 15 years ago, as sure as victory seemed throughout the evening, it’s easy to forget the depths from which the team had climbed. Born in 1976 as the NFL’s 27th franchise, prior to the free agency era and with limited opportunities to add talent, the Buccaneers lost their first 26 games. After a rather impressive rise to its first NFC Championship Game appearance in 1979, Year Four, the organization enjoyed three playoff seasons and then went into a decade-and-a-half slumber.

Glazer purchased the team in 1995, however, and by 1997 the Buccaneers were back in the playoffs. They were back in the NFC Championship Game by 1999, but a dramatic last-minute loss in St. Louis to the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams denied them their first trip to the Super Bowl. Two more playoff appearances were quickly nipped in Philadelphia before the Buccaneers finally cleared that Eagles hurdle in the dramatic 2002 NFC Championship Game. The Bucs headed across the country for the big game; the Raiders had a much shorter trip and were favored by four points.

But there was no stopping this Buccaneers juggernaut, and the players knew it. Just 11 minutes before the Super Bowl’s opening kickoff, Gruden gathered the team around him in their locker room at Qualcomm. As the players kneeled, Gruden reminded them that they were ready to dominate.

“There is no pressure,” the coach told his players. “None. We don’t feel pressure, we apply it.”

Rice was the first to put those words to action, as his third-down sack in the red zone four minutes into the contest kept the Raiders from opening the scoring with a touchdown. From that point on, the pressure was relentless.

Michael Pittman had his best game of the year, pounding away 29 times for 124 yards. Alstott, as usual, would not be denied at the goal line. The offensive line, oft-maligned during the regular season, was impenetrable, allowing zero sacks in the Super Bowl and only one in the entire postseason. Joe Jurevicius, driven by thoughts of his ailing infant son, Michael, turned in yet another enormous play in the passing game, as he had so emotionally the week before in Philly. The defense set Super Bowl standards, still not matched, with those five interceptions and three pick-sixes. Gruden pushed all the right buttons against the team he had very successfully coached the previous four seasons.

Gruden said one more thing to his players before releasing them to the field to start the game. “Sixty minutes,” he said. “That’s all I’m asking for. Sixty minutes and we’re going to be champions of the world.”

He was right. Sixty minutes of game clock, three hours and 50 minutes of real time, ending at 10:16 for those glued to their televisions in Tampa. After that, it took a long time for the Buccaneers to get back to their locker room after the game; there was a trophy ceremony to attend to, after all. When they did find their way back, the Rock was waiting.

A 200-pound hunk of granite originally hauled into team headquarters by Defensive Line Coach Rod Marinelli, the Rock had become a literal touchstone for the Buccaneers. Gruden had adopted Marinelli’s “Pound the Rock” exhortation as the team’s motto. Keep pounding the rock, Buccaneer players were told, and eventually it would crack. The craggy, white rock accompanied the team to Philadelphia and San Diego, and while it remained in one piece in that Qualcomm locker room, it had finally, figuratively cracked on January 26, 2003.

“We just kept telling each other to pound the rock,” said Brooks. “This defense kept bringing it and bringing it. I was able to read the quarterback and pick that pass off. I’m just glad it came in the Super Bowl, and a Super Bowl we deserved to win.”


Published at Fri, 26 Jan 2018 13:47:43 +0000