The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were coming off two straight years of being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, each time on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles. Tampa Bay decided to shake things up.
The Buccaneers fired head coach Tony Dungy, and hired Jon Gruden, who was fresh off taking the Oakland Raiders into the playoffs before suffering an excruciating loss to the destiny tale that was the 2001 New England Patriots.
Tampa Bay’s basic parameters of a strong defense combined with a tolerable offense continued to hold form, even with the shift from the defensive-minded Dungy to the offense-oriented Gruden. The Bucs had the best defense in the NFL. Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brook, Shelton Quarles and John Lynch were all Pro Bowlers. That doesn’t include a young corner in Ronde Barber, who would go on to a long career in the NFL.
But offensively was a different story. Tampa Bay ranked just 18th in points scored, but quarterback Brad Johnson threw only six interceptions. It was enough to put him in the Pro Bowl. The same went for fullback Mike Alstott, while wide receiver Keshawn Johnson had 1,000 yards in the air. The combination of an offense that could run the ball, avoid mistakes and get a little bit of big-play action down the field was all this defense needed to lead the way to wins.
Tampa Bay started the season 9-2, including a hard-fought 21-7 win over Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers on November 24, a victory that would prove critical in the tiebreakers. A pair of late losses appeared ready to confine the Bucs to the 3-seed, meaning no first-round bye and potential road dates in both Green Bay and Philadelphia.
Then the Buccaneers got a break. Green Bay lost to a surging New York Jets’ team in Week 17, and Tampa Bay, Green Bay and Philadelphia all ended the season at 12-4. Tampa Bay’s win over Green Bay nudged them into the 2-seed behind the Eagles. The Bucs would at least get a bye, and only one potential cold weather game.
The issue of Tampa Bay playing in the cold was a prominent issue at the time. Not only is this a topic for conversation any time a warm weather team goes north, but the Bucs own recent history had seen consecutive playoff losses in Philly. What’s more, they had just won for the first time in franchise history when the weather was below 32 degrees—and that was against the 4-12 Chicago Bears.
After Tampa Bay blasted the San Francisco 49ers in the second round, the stage was set for a return to Philadelphia, this time for the NFC Championship Game.
In 20-degree temperatures, the Buccaneers exorcised their demons. The defense shut down the Eagle running game and forced Donovan McNabb into an erratic 26-for-49 for 243 yards showing. Tampa Bay won the turnover battle 3-1 and led 20-10 in the fourth quarter. Philadelphia drove to get back in the game, but Barber intercepted a McNabb pass on the Tampa Bay 8-yard line and took it back 92 yards to the house. Tampa Bay won 27-10 and was going to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
It was an ironic matchup in the Super Bowl–the Oakland Raiders were the opponent, as Gruden faced his old team. But the NFC was where the power was this season. The Raiders’ 11-5 record was the best in the AFC, yet inferior to Tampa Bay, Green Bay and Philadelphia. And this game was no contest.
Tampa Bay forced five turnovers, scored three defensive touchdowns and Dexter Jackson, the free safety who had two interceptions, was named game MVP. The defensive display at the Super Bowl in San Diego was a fitting end to a great season for the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
What’s perhaps most surprising is that this is where the run ended. The Tampa Bay defense continued to be an elite unit, but the offense never materialized. A team that looked like a potential dynasty didn’t even get back to the playoffs until 2005 and they haven’t won a postseason game since the run of 2002.