And to think, this was supposed to have been a rebuilding year, a season in which one of the Bucs' primary objectives was to lay down a foundation for the future.
Well, as General Manager Bruce Allen likes to say, the future is now. A Bucs team that few believed would even contend for a playoff berth has not only made the playoffs, but also will host a first-round game Saturday at Raymond James Stadium against the Washington Redskins (10-6).
That's the payoff the Bucs got for beating the New Orleans Saints, 27-13, on Sunday and wrapping up a comeback season in which they posted an 11-5 record and won their second NFC South Division title. "We just competed, week in and week out - compete, compete, compete," defensive end Simeon Rice said. "We just threw it all out there each week and let the chips fall. But we're not done yet. We're looking for much more. We're looking to finish this thing. It's sudden death now - in or go home - but that's fine, because the last time we were in this situation, we flourished."
They flourished all right - all the way to the Super Bowl. That was in 2002, a year that seemed so very far away when the Bucs, coming off back-to-back losing seasons, went back to work this season. They were coming off a 5-11 campaign and a run of injuries across the offensive front had forced them to go with three first-year starters. The Bucs seemed rather thin at receiver then, too, and there were questions about their place-kicker and a defense that was coming off a year in which it ranked 19th in the league against the rush.
But while so many outside of the Bucs' camp were focused on what transpired in 2004, the players inside, especially the young ones, were urged to ignore the past and focus only on what lay ahead of them. "That's what I kept telling everybody," cornerback Ronde Barber said Sunday. "I told the guys from the beginning to focus on what we can do in 2005 and not what we did in 2004; and everybody bought into it."
A fast start made Barber's pitch an easy sell. So too did the immediate emergence of rookie running back Cadillac Williams, who set an NFL record for most rushing yards gained by a player in his first three games. As the season progressed, receiver Joey Galloway gave the Bucs a complement to Williams as well as a deep threat that opponents came to fear, especially after Chris Simms replaced the injured Brian Griese at quarterback.
The defense, meanwhile, got stronger and stronger, especially against the run. By the time they kicked off Sunday's game the Bucs' rush defense had improved to seventh overall. The pass defense, meanwhile, was ranked fourth overall. Not even losses seemed to faze this team. The Bucs lost back-to-back games just once all year, and that was when they were making the transition from Griese to Simms at quarterback.
"We've been extremely resilient this year," Simms said. "And for the most part, we've been pretty consistent, too. The most inconsistent we were was when I took over at quarterback.
We lost those two games in a row there, and I take some of the blame for that because I was a young quarterback who did some stupid things. But we have continually found ways to come out on top all year long."
Sunday's game fit the seasonal pattern. Though they had little to play for at the end of what proved to be a 3-13 year, the Saints kept hanging around like a pesky fly eluding the swatter. They actually outgained the Bucs by nearly 20 yards and were in a position to tie the game and possibly ruin the Bucs' chances of starting the playoffs at home when the Bucs finally swatted them.
Dewayne White, the reserve defensive lineman who blocked a field goal in overtime to give Tampa Bay new life in its victory against Atlanta last week, delivered the decisive blow.
With the Bucs leading 20-13, he made a charge at Saints quarterback Todd Bouman and forced a fumble by hacking at Bouman's arm. White then picked up the loose ball and ran 34 yards for a touchdown to seal the victory.
"I think that was the signature play of the game," said Jon Gruden, who seemed to suggest he'll need a better effort from his defense next week to advance in the playoffs.
"We struggled a little bit defensively, giving up some yardage," Gruden said. "We let them get out of some holes. They were backed up a few times, and uncharacteristically, they got out of those holes and pinned us back."
The Bucs pinned themselves back at the beginning of the game. On a fourth-down play from the Bucs' 34, Will Allen got in position to break up a Bouman pass, but instead of knocking it down he intercepted it. That forced the Bucs to start at their 12, but a couple of runs by Williams, a 14-yard pass to Ike Hilliard and a 24-yard pass to Mike Alstott got them out of the hole.
Eleven plays later, Simms hit Galloway with a 7-yard pass to give the Bucs a 7-0 lead. The Saints answered in the second quarter with a field goal, but the Bucs came right back and made it 14-3 on a 4-yard Simms-to-Galloway pass.
Bouman tightened the game two series later when he finished off an 88-yard drive by hitting Devery Henderson with a 24-yard pass. Then, just before halftime, Juran Bolden intercepted Bouman to set up a 46-yard Matt Bryant field goal that gave the Bucs a 17-10 lead.
The teams played a scoreless third quarter but traded field goals before White made his game-sealing play with 1:55 remaining. "The last two minutes of each half, that's when you have to get a rush, step up and make a play," White said. "We were able to do that. It was the icing on the cake."
Actually, the icing comes next week.
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 2 January 2006