2001 - Failure again - Tony Dungy pays the price
The disappointment of the wild-card loss to the Eagles meant once again off-season moves were made to improve the roster and to provide Tony Dungy with the tools he needed to take the team to that proverbial next level. Clyde Christensen became the Bucs' third offensive co-ordinator in as many years but he had a new QB to work with as Brad Johnson chose Tampa over Baltimore in the free agency sweepstakes and signed a $27M five-year contract to become the Bucs' signal-caller.
Shaun King took his demotion to No.2 fairly well particularly with the trade of Eric Zeier and the abortive comeback attempt of Ryan Leaf, meaning he would be the Bucs' clipboard holder for the entire season without threat. Also leaving the team in the annual off-season free agency merry-go-round were Damien Robinson, Chidi Ahanotu and mouthy Frank Middleton.
But the most meaningful defensive signing of the spring was Simeon Rice arriving from Arizona. One of the best pass rushers in the NFL, Rice signed an innovative contract that would cost the team a minimal amount under the 2001 cap, but would benefit both parties if the move worked out for the best. Draft day brought help for the offensive line as the Bucs made a deal with Buffalo to move up from the 21st to 14th spot in the first round to take T Kenyatta Walker, another Florida graduate.
The Bucs entered their final season in the NFC Central (re-alignment would take place the following year) with a 10-6 win over the Cowboys in another typical Bucball performance. The defense did its usual thing but the offensive struggles continued through a loss in Minnesota and a home win over the Packers that mainly came about on Shelton Quarles' team-record 98-yard interception return.
Losses followed to Tennessee and to Pittsburgh, the latter when Brad Johnson was sacked ten times in one game and the boo birds were in full voice before the Bucs once again used Minnesota as their springboard to success with a 41-14 hammering of the Vikings to ease the pressure on the struggling offense. The usual 3-4 start to the season was established by the team's 12th straight loss in Lambeau Field and Tampa Bay found themselves at 4-5 when the surprising Bears hung on to a 27-24 nailbiter when Martin Gramatica's 48-yard FG attempt hit the post as time expired.
The inept offensive performances continued through a three-game winning streak over the Rams, Bengals and Lions before the team reached its low point with a 27-3 loss in Soldier Field. Now the Bucs had to win their next two home games to clinch a wild-card berth and 48 points later against the Saints, and an impressive defensive hammering of the World Champion Ravens, put the Bucs into the post-season for the fourth time in five seasons. It actually made the Monday Night finale against the Eagles, postponed from September 11th, absolutely meaningless and one in which the starters spent most of the game pulling faces at the cameras.
But a week later, and the only happy faces were the ones of the Eagles as Philadelphia walked all over the Bucs 31-9 in Veterans Stadium in a game that I will only remember as being my debut as a presenter on Sky Sports. Brad Johnson threw four interceptions and Tony Dungy left the field knowing in his heart that he had coached his final game for the team. Sure enough, two days later he was relieved of his duties, along with most of his offensive scapegoats.
Everyone had expected Bill Parcells to be named the franchise's seventh head coach straight afterwards and it had been no secret that the Big Tuna had been in discussions with the Glazer family about a potential role with the team. But once again, Parcells jilted the Bucs at the altar and the 2001 season finished with Tampa Bay becoming the laughing stock of the NFL for having no coach, a team full of under-achievers and no championship. Who could have forseen what the next 12 months would bring.