A nightmare start to a fairy-tale season
Paul Stewart, Buccaneers Review , published 2008|
All the best fairy tales have a happy ending. The ones where the heroes all live happily ever after. You all know how the Buccaneers’ 2002 season ended with Jon Gruden hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy high into the San Diego night sky. But do you remember how it all began some four and a half months earlier?
The 2001 season had ended with a second consecutive Wild Card loss in Philadelphia. Tony Dungy was replaced as head coach by Jon Gruden and the former Raider supremo began the upgrade of his roster that would eventually culminate in a championship.
The changes came mainly on the offensive side of the ball. There were no top draft picks as the Bucs’ first and second round selections had gone to Oakland in return for the coach. But free agency brought the likes of RB Michael Pittman, TE Ken Dilger and WR Joe Jurevicius, and a salary cap move in Jacksonville in June made WR Keenan McCardell available too.
This quartet would all go on to play a huge part in the victory over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, but early in the season, their effect was still going to be limited. RB Warrick Dunn had moved on to Atlanta, TE Dave Moore to Buffalo, and a pair of former Gator receivers, Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green, were now former Buccaneers too.
The Bucs had looked good in the pre-season however posting a 3-1 mark, their only defeat coming to the temporarily inspired Redskins of Steve Spurrier. Frank Murphy had even began Gruden’s era by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
The Saints were coming off a 7-9 season in 2001 but had won their division the year before. Now they were part of the newly-formed NFC South Division and would for the first time be taking on the Bucs in a divisional match-up.
Through three quarters, the Jon Gruden Buccaneers looked like the Tony Dungy Buccaneers of a year before. Limited offense (161 yards through 45 minutes) and a 20-10 Saint scoreline did not bode well for the all-white clad Tampa Bay team.
But this Buc team began to turn things around and after a 73-yard drive that culminated in QB Brad Johnson finding Jurevicius from 11 yards out, the defense did their part by forcing a three-and-out from the Saints, and the Bucs got the ball back at their own 26-yard line at the two minute warning.
A pair of completions each to Jurevicius and McCardell gave the Bucs the chance to rush K Martin Gramatica on to the field and his 40-yarder sailed through the uprights as time expired to force overtime.
And it looked good in the extra period too. Aaron Stecker, of course to become a Saint in later years, returned John Carney’s kick-off to the Tampa 42 and the Bucs drove into Saint territory before the drive stalled at the New Orleans’ 39-yard line.
But the visitors won the battle of field position and when Brad Johnson’s pass to Dilger fell short of a first down, P Tom Tupa found himself punting from his own endzone inside the final three minutes. Saints’ special teamer (and another former Buc) Fred McAfee, burst through the line and began to tackle Tupa.
Forced into an awkward improvisation, Tupa watched helplessly as his attempted left-handed toss was intercepted by rookie linebacker James Allen for the winning touchdown. “I saw some guy right in my face and I tried to pull the ball down,” Tupa said. “If I'm tackled there, it's a safety and the game's over anyway. My right arm was wrapped up, so I had to do what I could with my left hand. That's a first for me.”
Both offenses were guilty of pressing in overtime. The Saints gained 21 yards on nine plays while the Bucs gained 27 on 15. “It became a battle of field position and we lost it,” CB Ronde Barber said.
“All those flags, those penalties, those plays, they may not show up in the stat sheet,” Gruden said. “But they were costly. And I'm disappointed. But I'm not going to let this one fester for very long. We have a good football team and we're going to come back from this.''
Someone asked Tupa which one of his teammates was the intended receiver. “Anyone,” Tupa said.
Tom Tupa began his NFL career back in the late 1980s as a quarterback. He even started a 1989 game against the Buccaneers for the then-Phoenix Cardinals. Alas his one and only pass as a Buccaneer would be an interception.
The offense struggled through the first few weeks of the season but the Bucs went on a five-game tear before falling once again in Philadelphia. But they would lose only twice more in the season, once on Monday Night Football against Pittsburgh, and the other on a Sunday night televised game in New Orleans. The Saints would finish the year at 9-7 and miss the play-offs. The Bucs would wind up at 12-4 and division champions of the NFC South before defeating San Francisco and Philadelphia on their way to Super Bowl XXXVII success over the Oakland Raiders.