Please allow a brief columnist note: Back in January, I, Denis Crawford, did state that Raheem Morris should not be invited back to coach the Buccaneers in 2010. I felt that Mr. Morris was in over his head and was too inexperienced to guide the Buccaneers out of the abyss. While the Bucs are far from being assured of a playoff berth, it has been proven that Mr. Morris is not in over his head. I now stand corrected and offer my apologies to Mr. Morris.
The Buccaneers' 3-1 start to the season is arguably the most unexpected record in the NFL. Even more so than the 1-3 start of the “Model NFL Franchise” Dallas Cowboys or the 1-2 start of the “Pay Any Price for Victory” Minnesota Vikings.
Those of us blinded by despair at the end of last year’s debacle overlooked what may have been a clue as to the potential of Morris and these Buccaneers. On the penultimate Sunday of the 2009 season, we may just have witnessed the “Cornerstone Victory” of the Morris era.
To my way of thinking, a Cornerstone Victory is a game in which one can point back years later and say, this was the game in which the fortunes of a franchise had a chance to turn for the better. The Bucs 20-17 overtime triumph over the eventual Super Bowl champion Saints may have just been such a moment.
Trailing 17-0 in the first half, the Buccaneers appeared to be on the way to a severe beat-down. Instead, the Bucs righted themselves and scrapped and clawed their way back to a 17-17 tie. When Garrett Hartley whiffed on a 37-yard field goal as time expired, it appeared like déjà vu for the Bucs. Thirteen years earlier, a game in Tampa Stadium had the same aura and that turned things around for the Bucs in a big way. More on that game later.
The Bucs won the overtime coin toss and never looked back. Josh Freeman led the team methodically down the field and Connor Barth (clean-shaven for this game, I believe) booted the winning points for Tampa Bay.
The next week however, the Bucs flopped at home to Atlanta. Upon initial review, the game appeared to be an example of an elite team temporarily caught off guard as they raced to a Super Bowl title.
But was it?
Could that 20-17 shocker in the Superdome have been the game that Bucs fans for years to come will point to as the moment Tampa Bay came of age under Morris? Only time will tell. Every Buccaneer coach has had at least one big victory that provided a chance to turn things around.
Whether or not those wins came to be “Cornerstone Victories” was determined by history. For argument’s sake, I offer what I think were the biggest cornerstone victories in every Buccaneer coaching regime. In some cases the Bucs blossomed. In others, the victories turned out to be Fool’s Gold.
The Bucs travel to Bloomington, Minnesota to play the perennial NFC Central Division champion Vikings. Lost in the infamous gaffe of Neil O’Donoghue and Dave Green on a botched field goal, was just how impressive the Bucs were in victory.
Lee Roy Selmon sacked Fran Tarkenton three times and the Bucs defense stifled the Vikings and Doug Williams threw his first NFL touchdown pass. The final score of 16-10 sent shockwaves around the NFL and signaled the end of Minnesota’s dominance. The win keyed the 0-2 Bucs onto a 4-2 run ended only by Doug Williams’ season-ending jaw injury.
I still say, had Doug not been hurt, “Worst to First” would have happened in 1978 (the Vikings won the division with a putrid 8-7-1 record). As it was, the Bucs grew up in a hurry and 1979 wasn’t quite as shocking to the people who really paid attention in 1978.
Honestly, the Bucs played very hard under Bennett in 1985. They got off to an 0-9 start, but gave the eventual Super Bowl champion Bears everything they could handle twice and took the Dan Marino Dolphins to the brink. The Bucs also came within a bad ref’s call of beating the Giants in The Meadowlands.
A 16-0 shutout of the St. Louis Cardinals gave some fans hope. A 62-28 pounding by the Jets the next week took it away. What many don’t remember is the week after the Jets game the Bucs defeated division rival Detroit, 19-16. Similar to the recent game against the Bengals, the Bucs were rallied to 10 points in the final moments by a young quarterback. Steve Young looked was raw, but was able to win the game.
At the end of that game, the Bucs were winners of two out of three and appeared to find a solid quarterback. A win on the road against fellow doormat Green Bay could have gone a long way towards getting players to believe in the system. Unfortunately, the next game was the Snow Bowl. The Bucs under Bennett would never feel that good again.
The Bucs were 2-2 and had beaten Green Bay and New Orleans. They lost to the 49ers 20-16 primarily after a dropped interception in the end zone on Joe Montana’s final drive. Into town comes the undefeated Chicago Bears and in the blink of an eye the Bucs are up 21-0. The final score is Tampa Bay 42 Chicago 35 and the ENTIRE TAMPA BAY OFFENSE is named NFC Offensive Player of the Week.
The playoffs appear a distinct possibility and Vinny Testaverde looks like a new man following his 35 interception disaster in 1988. However, the next week a pitiful Lions team upsets the Bucs and things never quite get as bright in Tampa Stadium under Perk.
This 30-21 victory over the Lions probably classifies more as a blind squirrel finding an acorn then a cornerstone victory. However, I want to give Williamson his due. Despite the team being 1-8 coming into the game, the Bucs played very hard and overwhelmed the Lions in a game not as close as the score indicated.
The Lions would go on to reach the NFC Championship Game, but on this day Reggie Cobb outran Barry Sanders and the Bucs defense recorded four sacks (even Dexter Manley and Keith McCants had one apiece!). The Bucs parlayed this win into a 43-7 loss the following week in Atlanta. Oh, well. For one week it was nice to think the corner was turned.
The infamous “5 dash 2” game of the Wyche era. The Bucs were quite possibly the ugliest 4-2 team in the NFL in 1995. One of their victories came when Michael Husted kicked a field goal through crooked goal posts! When the Vikings came to town, it appeared the Bucs were going to be exposed.
Instead, the Bucs went toe-to-toe with the Vikes and after 60 minutes the game was tied. In overtime Michael Husted kicked a 51-yard game winner (through straight goal posts) and the Bucs were 5-2. In fact Sam Wyche made it a point during his post-game interview to remind everyone the Bucs were 5-2.
Sadly, by the end of the season the Bucs were “7 dash 9” and Wyche was gone. This game is probably better remembered as John Lynch’s coming out party. The certifiable Hall of Fame safety picked off two passes to help the Bucs' cause.
The 1-8 Bucs under first year coach Tony Dungy seemed to be on the brink of another crushing “Oh, so close defeat.” Tied at 17 with just seconds to play, Oakland lined up for a 28-yard chip shot by Cole Ford to win the game. Instead, the Raiders kicker reverts into Cole Porter and misses the boot. It is “DeLovely” for the Bucs, who rally in overtime and win the game.
For so many years, it had been Tampa Bay’s role to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. To have the misfortune strike an opponent instead gives everyone in Tampa Stadium (including yours truly) the sense that something is different.
The Bucs don’t squander the opportunity, winning four of their remaining games to finish 6-10. Again, for those playing close attention in 1996, the 1997 run to the playoffs didn’t come off as that big of a surprise.
This may come as a surprise to most people, but I believe the cornerstone victory of the Jon Gruden era was not the Super Bowl. Instead it was the 15-0 season finale victory over Chicago. The Bucs had lost to Pittsburgh the week before. They were on the road, in the cold and without starting quarterback Brad Johnson.
Staring at losing out on home field advantage, the Bucs did just enough behind Rob (Human Sack Machine) Johnson to win the game. Sitting in my study watching this game, it occurred to me how many past Buccaneer teams would have used the cold, the harsh crowd, the loss of a quarterback, or all of the above to just pack it in.
Instead, this team persevered and won going away. It was in that moment that I first thought to myself, this team could win it all. A rout of the 49ers, Eagles and Raiders in succession got its start that blustery night in Champaign, Illinois.
So, do you think the win at New Orleans last year is a cornerstone victory akin to 1978, 1996 or 2002? Or, do you think it is just a stand alone victory with little long-lasting impact like those in 1985, 1989, 1991 and 1995? Only time will tell, but I have a hunch in a couple of years this game will be memorable for many, many reasons.
Denis Crawford, October 2010