2004 - Back to reality
If the 2003 season had been a case of the post-SuperBowl hangover, then 2004 was a real case of waking up with a seriously bad headache and a dose of reality. A number of players and pundits alike had said that the 2002 season was the final window of opportunity for the Buccaneers to win it all and they were right. But 2003 had seen a number of games carelessly slip away that should have been won. There were not many of them in 2004.
The re-making of the Buccaneers of course began in the off-season. Warren Sapp wanted a new big-money contract as a free agent and the Bucs made it very clear from the outset that he was not going to get it in Tampa. Eventually he got the offer he wanted from the Raiders but quickly proved that he was on the same downturn as the Bucs. Keyshawn Johnson was finally booted out of town in return for another malcontent, Joey Galloway, Other free agents to depart included Thomas Jones, Nate Webster and Shaun King along with long-time return hero Karl "The Truth" Williams.
But it was the departure of fan favourite John Lynch which upset Buc fans more than any other. There was no question he was no longer the Pro Bowler he once had been and was not worth the $4M cap hit for the 2004 season. But a re-negotiation of his contract to allow him to remain in Tampa was not considered and Lynch moved on to Denver. If the fury over the release of a "good guy" was bad, then it reached new crescendos when NFL bad boy Darrell Russell signed a contract with the Bucs. Thankfully his track record continued and he was cut before camp even started at DisneyWorld in July.
The draft saw the final piece of the price paid for Jon Gruden as a 2nd rounder went to the Raiders, but it did mean we had a 1st round pick for the first time since 2001. And this pick was Michael Clayton who would have walked away with NFL Rookie of the Year in any other year apart from 2004 which saw the emergence of Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.
Free agency also saw significant arrivals on the offensive line with Derrick Deese, Matt Stinchcomb and Todd Steussie all seemingly upgrading the offensive line. The latter turned out to be a bust, although the first two started every game on the left side of the line. Former Bronco Ian Gold signed a one-year deal that allowed him to prove his fitness and also gave the Bucs some Pro Bowl experience on the outside.
Any hopes of a good season went out of the window in the first month with a four-game losing streak that saw the offense reach new lows in performance. Michael Pittman had been suspended for off-field problems and in the third game, Charlie Garner went down with a season-ending knee injury. Brad Johnson's passing performances dropped off the table and he was benched during the Seattle game in favour of second-year man Chris Simms. The following week, Simms went to the sideline with a collarbone injury during his first start and Brian Griese took over behind center.
Griese set a number of franchise records for passing during a mid-season revival that saw the Bucs win five of eight games, but there just wasn't enough talent on the roster to compete and the season fizzled out with another four-game losing streak and the first double-digit losing season in ten years. The defense allowed a couple of games to slip away in most uncharacteristic fashion, but the reality was that the defense was getting old and the great days of the Monte Kiffin SuperBowl defense were beginning to disappear into the sunset.