The Buccaneers set a new standard for losing last Sunday, tying the franchise record for largest margin of defeat. It was a soul-shattering loss for the young Bucs, a confidence shaking defeat at the hands of a team who had no business delivering it — a loss so thoroughly devastating, it threatens to derail the foundation of the team and wreck the precedents set by Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik.
But as hard as the loss might be on the inexperienced Buccaneers, it doesn’t even register on the “heartbreak” scale. The following five games altered careers, divided the fan base, and flipped the fortunes of the franchise:
5. Kiffin’s last game
Four games remaining. Win one, clinch a playoff berth. Two? Maybe the division. The Buccaneers were a 9-3 NFC juggernaut, only three narrow losses from a furious 12-0. They were salivating for the postseason after an early exit in 2007. The defense was elite, the offense was clicking, and the Buccaneers were dominating with bargain-bin players.
It was Jon Gruden’s magnum opus. His masterpiece. He’d constructed a powerhouse with Jeff Garcia under center. With a faded Warrick Dunn and Earnest Graham sharing carries. With Michael Clayton, Ike Hilliard, and three-team washout Antonio Bryant burning up the sidelines. And with Monte Kiffin’s legendary defense on the other side of the field.
Through Week 13, anyway.
Kiffin announced his departure before a Week 14 match up with division rival Carolina. The Buccaneers — and their playoff dreams — completely crumbled in the twilight of that season. The defense wilted, allowing 31 points per game over the last four, culminating in a humiliating loss to the cellar-dwelling Oakland Raiders.
Oakland entered the game averaging a 19th-century 15.4 points per contest. Things started — and nearly ended — well. Tampa Bay held a 10-point lead with 10 minutes remaining. Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell seemed flustered in the pocket and about to shatter under pressure.
Less than two minutes later, Tampa Bay was trailing 28-24. Seven minutes after that, the Raiders iced the game 31-24. Monte Kiffin shuffled off to greener pastures, and Jon Gruden — standing knee-deep in the ruins of his pièce de résistance — was fired three weeks after the loss.
4. The Repus Bowl
The 1976 Buccaneers hold a clever distinction as the worst team of all time. The 0-16 2008 Lions gave a run for the title, but that Detroit team had talent, and played a lot of teams close. There was a feeling, weekly, that it might be Detroit’s day. That they might finally break that 8-game, 10-game, 13-game losing streak.
No one felt that in 1976.
John McKay’s Buccaneers took a few games to the wire in their inaugural season — against the 2-12 Bills and the 6-8 Dolphins — but the losses got so monotonous and predictable, there was a sense that the Bucs might not ever win.
That feeling was especially strong after the Seahawks game.
Seattle — Tampa’s sister expansion team — entered the contest a pitiful 0-5, and neither of them had shown any hint of belonging through the first third of the season. It might’ve been either team’s only chance for a victory in 1976.
The game was dubbed the “Repus Bowl” — a backward spelling of “Super” — poking fun at the ineptitude of each young squad. Both sides played well (collectively, the Buccaneers played better than they would for the rest of the season), but after pulling within three points on the franchise’s first touchdown pass, the Buccaneers couldn’t seal the victory in the final quarter.
They lost 13-10, and — through 2008 — were lovingly remembered as the only winless team in league history. Their 0-26 record through their first 26 games remains one of the most baffling and hilarious measures of ineptitude in professional sports.
3. Frank Corral sends the Rams to the Super Bowl
There was a problem with the offense in 1979. The Buccaneers finished 10-6 and atop the competitive NFC Central, but ended the season with a bottom-of-the-barrel offense. They beat the Vikings 12-10. They bested the Lions 16-14, and the Bears 17-13. They defeated Kansas City 3-0 in a white-water monsoon.
Thirty-two years later, it’s the 1979 Steelers — the “Steel Curtain” — with the awards and the press clippings. But McKay’s 3-4 scheme was better; the Buccaneers ranked first in points allowed, first in passing yards given up, first in total yards given up, first in yards surrendered per play, and they carried the team into the Conference Championship Game against the L.A. Rams.
Earlier in 1979, three months before their playoff meeting, the Buccaneers defeated the Rams 21-7 and completely shut out the Los Angeles offense. After the game, L.A.’s offense hit its stride, and their double-headed backfield shredded the rest of the league; running backs Wendell Tyler and Cullen Bryant combined to average 141 yards of offense per game, were proven threats both running and catching, and combined to form an indomitable, versatile offensive attack.
Both parties — Tampa Bay’s stifling defense, and Los Angeles’s volatile rushing offense — showed up for the NFC Championship. The Rams bludgeoned the Tampa Bay defense for 216 rushing yards, but struggled for every inch. Los Angeles’s normally-explosive backfield slammed into John McKay’s 11-man wall 53 times during the game, and the Rams only mustered nine points — three short field goals of the leg of the horribly inconsistent Frank Corral. But nine points was enough.
Hell, two points was enough.
Per usual, the Tampa Bay offense imploded. They finished with only 177 yards of offense — 66 of them coming on two plays, both by explosive young receiver Larry Mucker — and no points. Quarterbacks Mike Rae and Doug Williams combined to go 4 for 26 (15%), 54 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, and an illustrious 23.55 passer rating, and the lack of offense — a season-long problem — cost Tampa Bay a trip to Super Bowl XIV, and a chance to be remembered as an all-time defense.
But it’s probably for the better. The “Creamsicle Curtain” doesn’t sound quite right.
2. The Monday Night Meltdown
The Peyton Manning legend was born in October 2003, in the early hours of a Tuesday morning.
It’s the game that shifted the Indianapolis Colts from up-and-comer to league powerhouse and sabotaged Tampa’s 2003 season. It tore the mystique from the heart of the Super Bowl defense. The nation watched as Manning dissected them to the point of rupture, and the bleeding never stopped.
They were mortal, after all.
The Buccaneers were rolling after a Super Bowl victory in 2002. They faced off against the surging Colts on Monday Night Football, allowing a league-best 7.3 points per game. Indianapolis was 4-0 on the season. Peyton Manning was building what would be the best season of his young career. The week before the Monday Night showdown, Manning and his compatriots hung 55 points on the hapless Saints, and were set to steamroll any defense in their path.
Even the NFL’s best.
For three quarters, Tampa’s offense shot sparks through the scoreboard. The defenders swarmed the Colts like a cloud of locusts. Indianapolis was on the verge of collapse — down 35-14 with four minutes and change remaining — before Peyton Manning came to life.
The Colts scored two touchdowns on seven offensive plays. With 1:41 remaining, Manning engineered a five-play, 85-yard game-tying drive, abusing replacement corner Tim Wansley for huge chunks of yardage. A one-yard touchdown run knotted the game at 35, with less than a minute on the clock.
Indianapolis forced a punt in overtime. 14 plays later, Mike Vanderjagt would miss the game-winning field goal, and the Buccaneer faithful would breathe a sigh of relief. But a penalty flag — Simeon Rice, leaping — would give Vanderjagt another chance.
The field goal — one of the record 37 “consecutive” that Vanderjagt made that season — clanked off the right upright, but tumbled in behind the crossbar.
Kick is good. Colts win 38-35.
Gruden’s spoke during the post-game press conference. Instead of his normal, cliched coachspeak, he offered Tampa Bay a brief — but sincere — apology. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Man, I’m sorry.”
1. Warner to Proehl
On January 23 — three weeks after the new millennium — the Bucs met the Rams in St. Louis’s Trans World Dome.
For the second time in franchise history, the Bucs were playing the Rams for a Super Bowl berth. But unlike that 1979 Rams team — the tough defense and reliable running attack — Dick Vermeil’s squad boasted four future Hall of Famers on offense: quarterback Kurt Warner, receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and running back Marshall Faulk. Faulk was in the prime of one of the most dominant careers in football history. They were the Greatest Show on Turf, and they were unstoppable.
Until they met the ’99 Bucs.
Warner looked flustered for most of the game. Through the first fifty-five minutes of play, the league MVP had led his team to just five points, throwing no touchdowns and 3 picks. Faulk — one of the most prolific athletes in the history of the game — was held to 49 yards on 20 touches. Bruce and Holt combined for 10 catches and 90 yards, and St. Louis’s historic offensive production became a panicked memory. Monte Kiffin had neutralized four of the greatest players of all-time, game planning perfectly for Vermeil’s high-octane attack. The Bucs had terminated the league’s elite offense and were four minutes from a Super Bowl.
But they forgot about Ricky Proehl. The 31-year old washout receiver had spent the last six season underperforming for various teams. He joined St. Louis in 1998, and after a brief renaissance, faded back into obscurity for the 1999 season. He had 33 regular-season receptions (a measly two catches per contest) and no touchdowns, but Proehl torched Tampa Bay that day.
He finished with six catches and a game-high 100 yards receiving, including a 30-yard bomb from Kurt Warner which arced mere inches over cornerback Brian Kelly’s outstretched fingers. Proehl made a ridiculous overhead catch and tumbled into the endzone, giving the Rams an 11-6 lead they would never relinquish.
The Tampa Bay offense gets most of the attention in the retrospectives. With a chance to tie, receiver Bert Emanuel had a controversial third-down drop. The ball thudded to the turf on the following play, the Bucs’ Super Bowl aspirations shattering as it hit the ground.
But it was Ricky Proehl who changed the game. The forgotten receiver who sent the Rams to the Super Bowl. The man Kiffin forgot to game plan against.
The closing act in the Greatest Show on Turf.