It doesn’t matter if you’re a new fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or have been around since the days of John McKay. There should be only one season that stands out among them all. The 2002-2003 season and Buccaneers run to becoming World Champions. We can easily cherry-pick a handful of memorable moments from that season, but only one has all the elements. I mean, aside from hoisting the Lombardi trophy that is.
For any Buccaneers fan who was alive between the years of 1995 to 2002, they could tell you how the slow rise to relevance felt on the way to being Superbowl champs. A handful of Wild Card appearances and a pair of Division Championships, the Buccaneers became one of the league’s legit contenders. However, as painful as it is to (currently) be in a decade long playoff drought, those previous playoff losses cut just as deep. If not more. To make things worse, those two Wild Card playoff losses were to a team that the Buccaneers just could not overcome. In back to back seasons no less. Which is exactly why this memorable moment is that much sweeter.
During of 1999 and 2000 seasons, the Buccaneers totaled a winning record of 19-13 under Tony Dungy. In both years, the Tampa made the playoffs only to come to an abrupt stop in the Wild Card. Again, both times they were stymied by the Green Monster to the North, the Philadelphia Eagles. Not to mention one more regular-season loss to pour salt on the wound in 2002. It wasn’t pretty either. The Buccaneers were never in the game and lost to the Eagles 31-9. This was the last time the Buccaneers would face the Eagles under Coach Tony Dungy’s leadership.
Here we go again?
After a season-opening loss to the rival Saints, the Buccaneers powered their way into a 5-1 record. Lead by the strength of the defense the whole way, the Bucs only allowed another 30 points through five games. Momentum was on their side as they traveled to the place they feared. Literally, as stated by John Lynch in the post-2003 season recap video. Even with a stout defense and a five-game winning streak, the Bucs could not get a win in the Vet (Veteran Stadium). They left Philadelphia with another sour taste in their mouths after getting smacked 20-10.
This was where the Bucs had finally had enough. On the bus ride to the airport, John Gruden exclaimed to defensive tackle Warren Sapp, “They won’t get us again. I got em'”
#20 to the House
By all accounts, there was nothing to like with how the NFC Championship game set up. The hope of momentum carrying into the game felt just like week seven. A Florida team coming into a city where the temperature was below freezing. Facing a team that has knocked you out of the playoffs twice in the past two seasons. All of that only to start the game with a 70-yard kickoff return to set up the Eagles with a walk-in TD from Duce Staley. To quote the immortal Tropic Thunder, “Here we go again….again!”
As things started to look like they always did, the Buccaneers offense answered quickly. After an ensuing series field goal, Tampa followed up again with a long scoring drive. Set up by a long pass play to Joe Jurevicius, Mike Alstott gave the Bucs the lead heading into halftime.
Knowing full well that they could not let up against the Eagles, the Bucs defense kept the pressure on. Despite driving the ball downfield, McNabb gave the ball up twice to Bucs defenders. One fumble to Simeon Rice and another to Ronde Barber. Though this would not be the last time Ronde would make the Eagles pay.
With 20-10 on the scoreboard and 3:21 left to play, the Eagles offense gained 70 yards looking to get within a field goal to tie. McNabb drops back, looking for a quick dump off to the flat, Ronde Barber appears out of nowhere. No stutter in his step. No bobbling of the ball. Just a clean and clear robbery interception of McNabb that went to the house for a touchdown. It was only 70 yards but it felt like he was running forever. Looking a stunned Eagles crowd with their “R.I.P Bucs” banner from 2000-2003, it was the most satisfying feeling a fan could have.
To top it all off, this was the last game the Eagles would play in Veteran Stadium. The stars had aligned for players and fans alike. Closing down the 33-year-old stadium with an NFC Championship and ticket to the Superbowl. Sorry, but not this year and never again. The last memory that city will have of Veterans stadium will be when Ronde Barber and the Buccaneers stole fate from them.
Here’s a sweet visual reminder of that wonderful play: