2000 - One kick from a division title
This was supposed to be the season when the Bucs won it all. Divisional playoffs in 1997, Championship Game in 1999, the best on-paper team in the NFL - surely the logical progression was to win the SuperBowl in the very year that the game is to be played in your own home stadium. Well unfortunately it didn't quite work out like that, but right up until the final two minutes of the fourth game of the season, everything was looking certain for destinty to takes its course.
The off-season had brought about what everyone considered to be the final pieces to the puzzle, the steps needed to get the Bucs over the hump. Remember, they had only been five points away from being the Rams to reach SuperBowl XXXIV, so any improvement was bound to be seen as the one key change that would make all the difference. Two new starters came in on the offensive line, future Hall of Famer Randall McDaniel at guard, and his ex-Minnesota team-mate Jeff Christy at center. The added bonus of hurting a key division rival was another positive point.
Departures from One Buc Place were big in name but necessary by nature. Trent Dilfer was allowed to leave as a free agent, thereby handing the offense to Shaun King in just his second NFL season. Eric Zeier would back him up whilst Trent would go on to other things with the Baltimore Ravens. Christy's arrival meant the retirement of Tony Mayberry after 10 seasons, 144 straight starts and three Pro Bowls.
But the departure of Hardy Nickerson to the Jaguars in free agency was questioned by many due to his leadership of the team. But Nickerson wanted $4 plus for four seasons, a lot to pay a 34-year-old middle linebacker. The monies were needed elsewhere on the Bucs, and Hardy left after six seasons in Tampa Bay, to ensure two injury-plagued seasons in North Florida.
But the Bucs' biggest move came just before the draft, one that people were expecting big things from the Tampa front office in that they had the 13th and 27th overall selections.
What no-one anticipated, was these picks being sent to the New York Jets in a trade for Pro Bowl receiver Keyshawn Johnson. A $56 million, seven-year re-negotiated contract followed, and the subsequent draft that really only brought G Cosey Coleman in the second round, was almost forgotten in the process.
Three weeks into the season, and the pre-season picks of Tampa Bay for the SuperBowl were looking good. New England were handled on the road, the Bears were totally destroyed in the home opener, and the Lions were never in the third game. And then the Bucs led 17-7 at home to the Jets with just over two minutes left. A Vinny Testaverde TD pass, an Alstott fumble, and a Curtis Martin option pass later, and the Bucs left a wet Raymond James Stadium with their first defeat of the season which quickly became the start of a losing streak.
An overtime loss in Washington, a Monday night loss in the Metrodome, and then a terrible home performance against Detroit, left the Bucs 3-4 for the third straight season. Keyshawn had had just one reception for one yard in the Week 4 game against his old team-mates, and the crowing around the league at the Bucs was getting more deafening by the week.
But if in doubt, just bring the Vikings to Tampa. 2000 was no different, and Minnesota were crushed to start the Buc revival. Wins over Atlanta and Green Bay followed, and after a temporary setback in the cold of Chicago where Shaun King had a nightmare, three more wins too the Bucs to 9-5 going into their Monday Night re-match with their old adversaries, the Rams. St.Louis had started the season 6-0 before falling flat on their faces, and this was a game between two heavyweights who were not championship contenders at that stage. But they put on a show in what will go down as one of the greatest Monday Night games of all time. Shaun King somehow led the Bucs to victory in the final two minutes in his own version of "The Drive" that also included "The Play" and "A Reidel Anthony catch", the latter being the most surprising.
And so the Bucs travelled to Lambeau Field for the season finale, a win meaning the NFC Central title. Martin Gramatica faced a 40-yarder to break another hoodoo for the franchise, the 40 degree and under stigma. His kick missed. The Packers marched down the field in overtime and the Bucs lost. It meant no bye week, no division title, and another cold weather game in Philadelphia the following week.
And everything that epitomised the lack of an offense in Tampa on occasions in 2000, was summed up in the City of Brotherly Love that night. No running game, no passing game, and a Buc defense that just couldn't overcome the lack of support from their team-mates. The Eagles ran out easy winners, offensive co-ordinator Les Steckel lost his job, and for the first time in Tampa Bay, mutterings about Tony Dungy's coaching ability began to echo around the country.