1998 - New digs in a disappointing year
Going into the 1998 season, the Bucs were the talk of the NFL. The franchise had been turned around on the field thanks to Tony Dungy and his players, the front office had been turned around thanks to Rich McKay and his team, and the ownership under Malcolm Glazer and his sons had overseen the whole thing. Now, rising from the ground next to the Big Sombrero, came the next stage of the Buccaneer re-development, Raymond James Stadium.
But looking back at 1998 with hindsight, there is little doubt that the new stadium actually had a detrimental effect on the Buccaneers that season. Whilst the new stadium was being finished, and work was still ongoing on the likes of the escalators on the day of the first game, the Bucs became road warriors. All of their pre-season games were on the road, and their first two regular season encounters, Minnesota and Green Bay, were also away from home. The travelling eventually took its toll on the team, not least the pre-season encounter in Oklahoma City against the Chiefs where plan and pilot problems left the team sitting an airport most of the night.
But leading up to the new season, the Bucs had also been active off the field. Learning from the lessons of signing a free agent meat-head receiver in Alvin Harper, this time they invested big money in Bert Emanuel from the Falcons. Unfortunately although his head was OK, the rest of his body often wasn't. Plagued by injuries and the spiralling decline of the Buccaneer passing game, Bert had a forgetable two seasons in Tampa and just like Alvin, was on his way out of town halfway through his signed four-year contract.
The draft brought some more wheeling and dealing as the Bucs dropped out of the first round to acquire extra selections and took Jacquez Green and Brian Kelly with their two second round picks. Both had been tabbed as potential first-rounders leading up to the draft, and most pundits considered these selections, plus gaining San Diego's 1st round pick in 2000 for another second rounder (Bobby Beathard was always good for a mug deal like that in those days), as another good session for Tampa Bay. A trade brought in fullback Lorenzo Neal to block for both Alstott and Dunn, whilst the backfield picture was simplified when Errict Rhett was traded to the Ravens, a sad ending to what had looked a really promising career for the former Gator.
Trent Dilfer led the Buc offense and matched his 1997 total of 21 touchdowns, but the problems of Buc ball were just beginning. More and more often, Tony Dungy and Mike Shula were playing not to lose and the conservative nature of their offense was often leaving them in a position where they could lose. Trent completed his first 11 games of the season in Minnesota, but it just went downhill from there. The Bucs returned home 0-2 and found themselves 15-0 down in their new stadium opener to the Bears.
There followed a microcosm of the 1998 Buccaneer season. The second half was all Tampa Bay, scoring four unanswered touchdowns and sending everyone, including the Bucs UK party camped out on the 50-yard line thanks to Mike Newquist, home very happy. "We gave everyone a reminder of the old Buccaneer football in the first half" said nose tackle Brad Culpepper after the game.
But there was a lot of this old football at times in 1998. The 9-3 loss to New Orleans when the Bucs had so many chances to win it, the embarrassing performance on the team's first Monday Night Football game in 15 years when they were whipped by the Lions, and the three straight mid-season losses that dropped the team to 4-7. "It's time to push the panic button" said Warrick Dunn.
The 15-1 Vikings had felt the brunt of that potential button-pushing as they lost their only game of the regular season when they came to Tampa earlier in the season, and now the Bucs were on a mission. The Bears were handled in Soldier Field, the Packers lost an epic Monday Night game at Raymond James Stadium, and after the Bucs had beaten the Steelers, they still had a chance of the post-season.
But a fourth quarter collapse in Washington thanks to some awful turnovers, took the Bucs into the realm of not controlling their own destiny, and in spite of hammering Cincinnati for the biggest road win in franchise history, the Arizona Cardinals took the final wild-card spot that the Bucs thought they had done enough to deserve.
It used to be that an 8-8 season would bring wild celebrations in Tampa Bay - not anymore. "It's mediocre" said Tony Dungy as the Bucs watched other teams in the post-season. "We were capable of so much more." In 1999, they would be.