1996 - The Bucs get a new home and hope too
The search for the sixth head coach in Buccaneer history was thought to be nothing more than a two-horse race, Steve Spurrier or Jimmy Johnson. Spurrier had taken his Florida Gators to the verge of the national title, only to be humiliated by Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, while Johnson had made it very clear that his two-year spell as a television analyst was over and he was ready to return to the sidelines once again. Tampa Bay fans on both sides of the Atlantic were undecided over who would be the better selection, but were left aghast when neither wanted the job. Spurrier decided he was quite happy coaching his alma mater and took them to that elusive national championship in January 1997, while Johnson preferred to fill the enormous footsteps of Don Shula in Miami, and hence took the Dolphins' job instead.
And so it came to pass that Tony Dungy became the new head coach of the Bucs, many fans wondering just which foot the franchise would have shot themselves in with this selection. Dungy, the quiet, unassuming defensive co-ordinator of the Vikings, had been by-passed for several head coaching jobs in previous years, but finally found an owner and a team ready to accept that not all coaches have to rant and rave to make themselves seem successful. Dungy had the wide-spread approval of players and coaches around the NFL and brought with him a talented and experienced bunch of assistants, including former Buc QB Mike Shula to coach the offense, fresh from a successful run in Chicago.
The biggest move of the off-season however, was no move at all. No more talk of Baltimore or Cleveland or Los Angeles, the Buccaneers would remain in Tampa Bay for the next 30 years following the passing of the stadium tax by Hillsborough County voters. Work began on the new Tampa Stadium as the 1996 season kicked off and the promise of SuperBowl XXXIV meant the beginning of a new dawn in the other city by the Bay. Talk of a change in colours and logo began to circulate for the 1997 campaign and the effects of a full year of the Glazer ownership meant new commitments to front office and on the field spending.
Tony Dungy was lucky to inherit a team with plentiful draft selections, two picks in each of the first two rounds following the Craig Erickson and Harold Bishop trades the previous year. Erickson spent the year watching Jim Harbaugh quarterback the Colts and was cut at the end of the season, while Bishop became a permanent inactive member of the Browns, but led to the Bucs gaining another extra high selection as for once, it was another team doing the Buccaneers a favour with a poor trade.
The two first-rounders brought help for the defensive line, a particular area of interest and need for the defensive-minded coach. Regan Upshaw and Marcus Jones were the top-rated players at their positions and were both considered "can't-miss" players. The second round brought full-back Mike Alstott, whom many had expected to be a first-rounder, while General Manager Rich McKay made another shrewd decision by trading the other second round pick to San Diego for their 1997 first round pick. Cornerback Donnie Abraham arrived in the third round and became one of the finest young corners in the NFL while free agency brought solidity to the punting game with Tommy Barnhardt replacing Reggie Roby.
The offense was left once again, squarely in the hands of Trent Dilfer, although the supporting cast he was left to play with did often leave people to wonder if the square peg-round hole syndrome was more apt. Having looked at one point to enter the season with a solid and talented receiving corps, Dilfer lost the services of Horace Copeland (season-ending knee injury), Lawrence Dawsey (waived in a salary cap move), Lamar Thomas (waived after being arrested for beating up his pregnant girlfriend) and Alvin Harper (season-long ineffectiveness). Add to this the injury problems of tight end Jackie Harris, an indifferent line, a new gameplan brought in by Mike Shula, and one can soon see why the 1996 Buccaneer offense ranked in the bottom five for the entire season.
If a team was struggling with its offense, it would usually try to grind it out on the ground to regain lost confidence. The Bucs had no such option for the first two months of the year, as Errict Rhett embarked on a pointless and ill-advised contract holdout that led him watching from the stands until the end of October. Former Redskin first-round pick Reggie Brooks was brought in as a stop-gap, but was not able to run with any success inside, a critical skill in the Shula-inspired West Coast offense. What Tampa Bay and Dilfer did have though, was the best full-back in franchise history in the form of rookie Mike Alstott. Power running, great receiving and a tremendous attitude quickly made him a fan favourite, and he was unlucky not to make the Pro Bowl team for his magnificent first NFL season.
After being embarrassed in their home opener with Green Bay, Tony Dungy's first squad found themselves at 0-5 going into the bye week, Trent Dilfer having thrown four touchdowns, one to the guys in orange, and three to the bad guys on the other side of the ball. But the Bucs bounced back with a win over Minnesota, and began to establish the seeds of success with a zone-blitzing defense that held a string of opponents to under 17 points and 300 yards offense. Only the anaemic offense stopped wins in Arizona, Chicago and Green Bay, but the victories began to come against the Raiders and in a live game on British TV against the Chargers.
After seeing the 1995 squad that started so well and then fell away to leave a disappointing taste in everyone's mouths, this edition of the Buccaneers finished on a 5-2 tear with the best defense in the NFL over the second half of the season, and had the Tampa Stadium crowd on its feet in adulation as the Bears were hammered in the final game of the year. Dilfer had established himself to be one of the bright young stars at quarterback and had formed an unlikely partnership with Warren Sapp to become the two leaders of the team with the perennial Hardy Nickerson. The season really ended too early, but it did leave Buccaneer fans finally believing that there would always be next year in the search for post-season success.