Posted in Opinion

“The Filthy Five” – 5 Best Opening Day Performances in Buc History

by Erik Sabol on September 7, 2011

5. Joe Jurevicius has two all-time catches against Philadelphia (2003)

On January 19, 2003—with three minutes remaining in the conference championship game—Ronde Barber intercepted a pass intended for Antonio Freeman and returned it 92 yards for the game-clenching touchdown.  It was the last game the Eagles played in Veterans Stadium; Barber’s pick shut down the 31-year old arena and skewered Philadelphia’s Super Bowl aspirations.

Nearly eight months later, the Buccaneers opened on the road at Lincoln Financial Field.  The Buccaneer defense suffocated the Eagles, and early in the third quarter Tampa Bay held a narrow 3-0 lead.  Brad Johnson coordinated a 67-yard drive down to the Philadelphia 13, and on second down, Johnson launched a pass toward the end zone’s back pylon.

Joe Jurevicius (Getty)

The ball sailed over cornerback Lito Sheppard; Joe Jurevicius plucked it from the air, located the sideline, and dragged both feet in under a second—a catch so ridiculous, the Philadelphia staff burned a timeout by challenging the call.

On Tampa’s next drive—nursing a 10-0 lead early in the fourth quarter—Johnson took a third-down snap from the Philadelphia seven yard line.  The Eagles brought an eight-man blitz and rended the Tampa Bay line; Johnson rolled right and floated a pass toward the Eagle end zone.  Jurevicius extended to make the catch—Pro Bowl corner Troy Vincent bearing down on him—before tipping the ball skyward, twisting counter-clockwise, locating it, and diving to secure the improbable reception and a 17-0 Buccaneer lead.

4. Horace Copeland torches the Eagles (1995)

Outside of his backflip—one of the most exciting and unnecessary touchdown celebrations in Buccaneer history—Horace Copeland didn’t bring much to the team.  In his four seasons in Tampa, Copeland caught 115 passes for 1977 yards and 7 touchdowns—about one-and-a-half seasons of work for a better receiver—and consistently regressed as he aged.

There was, however, a signature game in 1995.  The Buccaneers traveled to Philadelphia to open the season, and Copeland terrorized corners Mark McMillian and Derrick Frazier.  On his first reception of the season, Copeland burned Frazier on a post pattern down the center of the field for the game’s first touchdown.  Early in the second, he beat McMillian on a short route and converted a second-and-nine.  Midway through the second, he smoked Frazier for another 20 yards, and late in the third, he shook McMillian for 17 more.

Finally, as the game wore down, he beat McMillian and converted a key third-and-nine; it led to a late Eric Rhett rushing touchdown, extending the Buccaneer lead to 21-6.  Copeland recorded 155 yards through the air—nearly 10% of his career total—and curiously, did it against a top NFL pass defense.  That season Philadelphia finished 10-6, and held players like Michael Irvin, Shannon Sharpe, and Tim Brown to under 100 yards receiving.

Go figure.

3. James Wilder versus the Monsters of the Midway (1985)

Only two men ran for 100 yards against the 1985 Chicago Bears.

Gerald Riggs was one.  He was Atlanta’s three-time Pro Bowler and all-time leading rusher, and he smashed headfirst into the teeth of the 46 defense all afternoon—again and again—grinding out 110 of the toughest yards of his career.  Riggs carried the ball 30 times for one of the worst offenses in the league, and—unsurprisingly—the Falcons lost the game 36-0.

The other man was Tampa Bay’s James Wilder.  In 1984, head coach John McKay ran Wilder into the ground; the running back touched the ball an absurd 492 times—a career-threatening number for most players—and McKay’s replacement, Leeman Bennett, seemed content to follow suit.  The Buccaneers opened the season against—what would later be considered—one of the greatest teams ever, and Wilder led the charge.

James Wilder (Chicago Tribune)

He shredded Chicago’s defense, carrying the ball 14 times for 105 yards and a touchdown—in the first half.  Tampa Bay went into halftime with a franchise-record 28 points, and an 11-point lead on their division rival.  Wilder finished the day with 166 yards on 27 carries, but the Buccaneers defense crumbled.  Chicago scored three second-half touchdowns, and the Buccaneers fell short 38-28.

Wilder’s 166 rushing yards were the most Chicago had surrendered in five years, and it would be another ten seasons before Barry Sanders eclipsed the total.

2. Steve DeBerg smokes the hapless Falcons (1987)

New Bucs coach Ray Perkins drafted nine offensive players during his inaugural offseason—including Miami prodigy Vinny Testaverde—and sought to supercharge the offense by taking to the air and moving away from James Wilder.

Things started off well.  The Buccaneers faced off against the hapless Falcons, and Steve DeBerg—incumbent starter at quarterback—completely ruined the Atlanta defense, posting what would be the best game of his 17-year career.  He threw five touchdowns in the 48-10 victory—four on Tampa’s first four drives—and led the Buccaneers to records in points, touchdown passes, and the biggest blowout in team history.

His only mistake—an overthrown interception intended for rookie receiver Mark Carrier—was redressed on the following play when backup cornerback Bobby Futrell picked off the Falcons and returned it twenty-three yards to the Atlanta thirty-nine, setting up another Tampa Bay touchdown.

Perkins’s offense never quite came together.  He lost 41 games in three and a half years—before being replaced by his offensive coordinator—and DeBerg fled for Kansas City after 1987.  His records for touchdown passes and points scored—though tied twice—have never been broken.

1. Warren Sapp wrecks the 49ers (1997)

The Buccaneers hadn’t had a winning season in fourteen years.  They’d been through six coaches and 159 losses in that time, and been on the wrong side of innumerable blowouts and humiliations.  The classic “creamsicles” became an object of derision, and for over a decade Tampa was the league laughingstock.

But the uniforms changed in 1997, and the culture changed with it.  The defense was curing; Hardy Nickerson was the hot-tempered nucleus, Derrick Brooks the athletic playmaker.  Warren Sapp, in his third season, was already a premier pass rusher, and John Lynch had found his niche as the big-hitting anchor in the secondary.  They were key ingredients in a volatile recipe, and it was bubbling over, on the brink of eruption.

And in the season opener, San Francisco was caught in the explosion.

Sports Illustrated

The 49ers were a perennial playoff team, fielding a quick-strike offense that burned opponents to the ground.  They were an early-season Super Bowl pick, hadn’t lost on opening day in five seasons, and boasted future Hall of Famers at quarterback and wide receiver.

Color Warren Sapp unintimidated.

On the 49ers’ first drive—third-and-two—Sapp shrugged off guard Tim Hanshaw and chased down Steve Young in the backfield.  Hardy Nickerson slid in to clean up the play and smacked Young in the back of the head, concussing the All-Pro passer and sending him out of the game.

Later that half—on first-and-ten deep in Tampa territory—Sapp caught Jerry Rice on a reverse and hauled him down by his facemask.  The tackle incurred a penalty, but also tore the receiver’s lateral meniscus, ACL, and MCL, and effectively ended Rice’s season.

The 49ers caved without their offensive superstars, and the Tampa defense overwhelmed backup quarterback Jeff Brohm, forcing seven sacks and an interception.  Nickerson and company throttled the vaunted San Francisco offense, allowing only 191 yards and six points.

The “creamsicles” were history, and the disrespect that followed them.  Their performance against San Francisco catapulted the Buccaneers into the national consciousness, earning them reverence and recognition, and laying the foundation for an all-time NFL defense.

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