2003 - Dim the lights, the party's over
As the 2003 Super Bowl season faded into the memorable past, all eyes turned to 2003 and the immediate question of whether the Buccaneers could repeat. It was of course a question asked of every champion and the Bucs were no different. All the talk from the players, coaches and front office staff was in the positive and most NFL pundits expected the team to make a good defense of its Vince Lombardi Trophy when competitive play resumed.
The off-season brought a pair of defensive defections when Dexter Jackson and Al Singleton both took advantage of their higher profile following the Super Bowl to sign more lucrative free agent contracts with Arizona and Dallas respectively. The Bucs' own acquisitions were along the offensive line where former Jaguar John Wade replaced the aging and hence released Jeff Christy, and Jason Whittle was brought in from the Giants to add depth at guard. Former Cleveland LB Dwayne Rudd arrived expecting a starting role in place of Singleton but was surprisingly beaten out by second-year Ryan Nece for the strongside position.
The draft brought limited help as the first round pick was again sent Oakland's way as part of the deal that brought Jon Gruden to Tampa. Indeed, none of the Bucs' selections would make any real impact in 2003 although QB Chris Simms falling to the final pick of the third round was seen as a bonus for the Buccaneer future.
The season opened on strange shores, in Japan no less. In their position as champions, the Buccaneers were one of the teams selected by the NFL for their American Bowl series and hence the Bucs kicked off proceedings playing the New York Jets in the Tokyo Dome. If only they could have been champions when these games were being played at Wembley. Still, the Bucs ended the pre-season 4-1 and were installed as firm favourites to repeat as division champions and a good bet to go all the way once again.
And then the season started. In fact, it actually began in tremendous circumstances as the Bucs travelled once again to Philadelphia. And having closed Veterans Field with an Eagles' loss, they did the same to the opening of Lincoln Financial FIeld on Monday Night Football with a 17-0 shutout.
But the following week brought an embarrassing home loss to the Panthers when the Bucs managed to botch two fieldgoal attempts and even the game-winning extra point after Brad Johnson had tied the scores with a last-gasp TD pass to Keenan McCardell. The latter would go on to have his finest season in his long career and would wind up in the Pro Bowl but every one of his seven TD receptions came in a Buccaneer loss.
After an easy road win against the Michael Vick-less Falcons, the Bucs were once again back on Monday Night Football and leading the Colts 35-14 with less than five minutes left. And they lost. That was the real turning point for the 2003 Buccaneers for although the injuries to the likes of Joe Jurevicius had begun to take its toll, this was the moment when the rest of the NFL realised that the swagger was all talk this time round.
Sure the Bucs won in Washington and shutout the new darlings of the NFL, the Bill Parcells-led Cowboys, but the dark clouds were beginning to loom large over Tampa. Brian Kelly was lost for the season to injury and Jon Gruden's weekly press conference was taking longer and longer every Monday due to the growing list of wounded in Buc land.
And the proverbial hit the fan when Keyshawn Johnson finally pushed his luck once too often and was suspended from the team for conduct detrimental to the franchise. Because of salary cap concerns, the Bucs could not afford to cut the mouthy receiver and hence he became a laughing stock around the NFL by being named inactive for the final six games of the season.
Late season wins over the Giants, Saints and Texans kept the Bucs mathematically in the hunt for a playoff berth but a last-minute loss on the road to Carolina when the once mighty defense was torched late, and a pitiful display in Jacksonville on national TV meant everyone knew the party was over before the encore.
By season's end, the Bucs had reached double figures in terms of players on their injured reserve list and only the emergence of RB Thomas Jones and twice-cut WR Charles Lee into potential offensive weapons gave Tampa fans hope as the season faded into dust. The regular season ended in December and for the first time since 1998, the Buccaneers' season ended too. It was also their first losing season since changing logos and uniforms in 1996 and also Jon Gruden's first as an NFL head coach.