1994 - A four-game winning streak to give fans hope
If 1993 was a disappointment at season's end for supporters of the Bucs around the world, the following year's edition was one that finished on a real high note. All of Ray Perkins' team had promised much early and then fizzled out to obscurity, but this third team of Sam Wyche's put together a four-game winning streak at the end of the season which in all probability should have been six, and finished with six wins, equalling their highest since John McKay's 1981 NFC Championship division team. Yet at mid-November, most pundits had written the team off, had Sam Wyche on his way at season's end to alternative employment, and the Buccaneers firmly ensconced as the worst team in the league.
The now annual dose of free agency saw Tampa Bay lose a pair of defensive stand-outs in lineman Ray Seals and cornerback Ricky Reynolds. Both received large contracts from their new employers in Pittsburgh and New England respectively, but both left the Bucs with large holes that replacements Brad Culpepper and Charles Dimry were never going to be able to replace. Santana Dotson moved to what was believed to be his better position as a pass-rushing end, but continued his disappointing fall from grace after his incredible rookie month in September 1992, while the introduction of the 4-2-5 defense with Barney Bussey as the "Bucko Back" or linebacker/safety, simply gave opponents licence to run at will against the Buccaneer defense.
Fresh offensive talent arrived at almost every position however, the Colts passing on the quarterback everyone expected them to take with the fifth selection, meaning that Trent Dilfer became a Buccaneer within minutes. New General Manager Rich McKay, son of the original Bucs' head coach, quickly said that this was in no way criticism of the efforts of the incumbent Craig Erickson, but simply a player with such a high potential ceiling that they could not pass him up for someone else.
Over his first two seasons, it was not just his potential that was high as passes flew over Buccaneer receivers into the waiting arms of opposition cornerbacks and safeties, but the talent remains there to be developed for the future. When Errict Rhett, the Florida tail-back who had broken all of Emmitt Smith's college records, remained available for their second selection, the Bucs could not control their glee, and quickly added a running back who would be popular not just with fellow players for his ability, but also with the fans for being a home-grown Buccaneer of the best kind.
Long-time tight end Ron Hall moved to Detroit in a free agency move, but the Bucs' biggest off-season signing, in salary terms alone, was his replacement Jackie Harris. In a move designed to hurt a division rival as much as improve their own team, the Buccaneers added a Pro Bowl threat to the receiving game, albeit one who would suffer more injuries than most over the next three seasons. A trade with the SuperBowl champion Dallas Cowboys brought in safety Thomas Everett to provide veteran leadership with Hardy Nickerson, while changes on the offensive line meant the starting five gave up only two sacks during the entire second-half of the season, a protection mark that any quarterback would be happy to work behind, let alone a Buccaneer passer more used to seeing stars than open receivers.
After a 1-3 start that included a 300-yard passing performance by Craig Erickson, and a tough loss to the Saints when a potential game-winning kick from Michael Husted went wide, albeit from 53 yards, Buccaneer fans were finally treated to one of the biggest monkeys being lifted from their backs in the Week 5 game with the Lions. At no time in their previous 18 seasons had a Tampa Bay kick returner, be it on kick-offs or punts, taken one back all the way for a touchdown. The expansion Saints had started their very first game in the NFL in 1967 with a touchdown, but it was not until Vernon Turner sped 80 yards down the right sideline past bemused Lions, that the Buccaneers joined the ranks of the haves, instead of languishing in the have-nots. Turner came within a whisker of taking a pair of kick-off back for scores as well, possibly the high point of the season in early November as the Buccaneers had fallen to a 2-9 mark after 11 games.
Trent Dilfer earned a brief baptism of fire against the 49ers and Vikings, performances that probably did more harm than good for the young passer, and after Barry Sanders had torched the Bucs for 237 yards in the return Detroit match, Sam Wyche's coffin was supposedly being prepared for its expected end-of-season use. But then came a winning streak that tied the second-longest in team history at four games. After the officials cost Tampa Bay victory against Seattle on two separate occasions in the final minute, the Bucs won an overtime game in Minnesota, defeated the Redskins twice, once on Errict Rhett's 192-yard game, and beat the Rams more convincingly than the 24-14 score indicated.
Rhett, relegated to watching and learning from Vince Workman in the first half of the season, started the final eight games and powered his way to a 1,000-yard season and All-Rookie honours. Craig Erickson finished with one of the highest QB ratings in the league as a workmanlike if unspectacular starter, and Charles Wilson came out of nowhere to become a deep threat over the second half of the season. Only the play-off bound Packers upset the Bucs in the final five weeks of the year, and it cost them a career-ending injury to receiver Sterling Sharpe in the process to do so.
No other Buccaneer season had ended with fans so looking forward to the next year. 1979 had seen them come within a game of the SuperBowl, but it had still ended in disappointment all the same. This was a year that provided real hope for the future, with the offense looking more potent than in recent memory, and the defense being led by the Pro Bowl-bound Hardy Nickerson, tackler of 214 opponents in a single season to set a franchise record. Were the good times about to come again for the long-suffering Tampa fans?