Great Buccaneer series
The recently completed World Series was a bit of a let down. For the eighth year in a row the Fall Classic did not go the full seven games as the San Francisco Giants downed the Texas Rangers in five.
That was not to say this World Series lacked drama. The Game One and Game Five pitching match-up of Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee was fun to watch and there were plenty of clutch hits, memorable defensive plays and a heavy dose of dominant pitching (mostly from the Giants).
The beauty of a seven game series, if a series goes that far, is that by the time the sixth and seventh games roll around there are no more secrets and the two teams are left to battle it out on wits, guile and sheer talent.
There have been a few times in Buccaneer history when Tampa Bay has been forced into a “series of games” of sorts against other NFL teams. Through quirks of scheduling and playoff fate, the Bucs have engaged in some titanic short and long series of games that may not have always gone Tampa Bay’s way, but definitely left football fans thrilled.
The Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams 1978-1980, 1999-2002
Considering that John McKay almost coached the Rams, Hugh Culverhouse almost owned the Rams and McKay and many Buccaneers had LA connections through USC football and the boys from sunny California made a solid early rival. Factor in Fred Dryer’s breaking of Doug Williams’ jaw in a hard fought 26-23 Rams win in ’78 and the many fracases that broke out in Tampa Bay’s 21-6 win in ’79 and the stakes were raised exponentially.
The Rams' 9-0 victory in the ’79 NFC Championship Game was one of the most physically brutal playoff games in NFL history. The next year the Bucs got a small bit of revenge, downing the Rams 10-9 on national television in an equally hard fought encounter.
Twenty years later, the Rams and Bucs renewed acquaintances in a playoff game. The Rams won the war 11-6, but the Bucs defense definitely served notice to the “Greatest Show on Turf,” as St. Louis wide-outs were bludgeoned and beaten on their routes, throwing off Kurt Warner’s timing until a perfectly thrown pass to Ricky Proehl towards the end.
In 2001 the Bucs again gained small revenge on national television, downing the Rams in thrilling 38-35 contest. The Bucs would go on to beat the Rams on Monday Night Football the next two years in a row as well.
All in all, the Bucs and Rams series were arguably the most compelling in franchise history because of the stakes involved. This was akin to the transcontinental Yankees-Dodgers series’ of 1970’s.
The Dallas Cowboys 1980-1984
The Bucs were a very good team in the early 80’s, but a series of games against the Cowboys proved they weren’t quite ready to be the elite team they became in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s. Except for a 38-0 blow-out loss, the Bucs always were able to compete early against the Cowboys, taking leads in the 1980, 1982 and 1983 regular season games before losing.
The Bucs also held a fourth quarter lead in the 1982 playoffs before falling 30-17. The Cowboys were far from their 1970’s best, but they still had more than enough for the Bucs in sweeping this series. Think of this as the Boston Red Sox-Colorado Rockies series of 2007.
The Minnesota Vikings 1996-2001
Tony Dungy had worked as Dennis Green’s defensive coach in Minnesota before becoming Tampa Bay’s head coach in 1996. That knowledge paid off handsomely in Dungy’s first win as a Bucs coach, 24-13 over Minnesota at Tampa Stadium.
That marked the second year of a seven-year run in which the Bucs and Vikings would split the season series of the old NFC Central Division rivalry. Included in those games was a memorable 27-24 Tampa Bay victory in 1998, the only regular season loss suffered by the Vikings that year and a 24-17 Tampa Bay victory in a 1999 Monday Night game that saw Shaun King cement himself as a temporary cult hero in Tampa Bay.
The final two years of the Dungy regime saw back-to-back lopsided Tampa Bay victories at Raymond James Stadium wrapped around agonizingly close losses at the Metrodome. With the familiarity created by the Bucs coach competing against his mentor within the division, the Tampa Bay-Minnesota series of this time was very similar in nature to the cross-town series of baseball history such as the Yankees-Brooklyn Dodgers and Yankees-New York (baseball) Giants in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
The Green Bay Packers 1996-2002
This was another long, intense series of games aided by the placement of the Bucs and Packers in the NFC Central until 2002. From the moment Tony Dungy took over the Bucs, the Packers were the class of the division and the measuring stick by which Tampa Bay would be compared. In 1997 the Bucs came of age as a playoff team but were not quite up to the Packer standard.
The Bucs lost three times to Green Bay, including a 21-7 loss in the divisional round. The following year the Bucs lost again to Green Bay in the second week but had a break-through 24-22 victory on Monday Night Football later in the year. Consider that game the moment the Bucs no longer had to call the Packers, sir.
Over the next three seasons the Bucs and Packers would split the regular season series in a string of games that were all decided by less than five points (except for a Buccaneer 29-10 triumph in 1999). The final game of this series was a 21-7 Buccaneer win over the Packers in a contest that saw Warren Sapp vilified for a devastating block of Green Bay lineman Chad Clifton.
That one moment personified the bad blood between the two teams and could as easily have been Jason Varitek vs. Alex Rodriquez. In fact, the Packers-Bucs series of that time is probably closest in scope to the recent Red Sox-Yankees playoff tilts with Brett Favre repeatedly in the role of Aaron “Bleepin’” Boone or Bucky “Freakin’” Dent, former Yankees notorious for late-game home runs which crushed the hearts of Red Sox fans.
The Philadelphia Eagles 2000-2006
This series had an ugly start but a beautiful ending. The Bucs lost four straight times to the Eagles during the 2000, 2001 and 2002 seasons, including back-to-back hammerings in the playoffs. When the Bucs lost 20-10 at Veterans Stadium in 2002 it looked as though the Bucs would always be the 1940’s-1950’s Cleveland Indians to the Eagles New York Yankees, doomed to be Philadelphia’s tormented second banana.
But just as the Tribe broke past the Yankees in 1948 and 1954, one Ronde Barber interception return shifted the series seismically. The Bucs 27-10 win over the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game didn’t just catapult Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl; it reversed the roles of the two teams.
The following September the Bucs blanked the Eagles 17-0 in Philadelphia’s brand new stadium and a few years later Matt Bryant’s 62-yard field goal secured yet another victory over the suddenly snakebit Eagles.
As these series of games show, the quirks and fates of the NFL has provided Buccaneer fans with several opportunities to see football at its most intensely competitive. Hopefully, the latest crop of Buccaneers players and coaches will find themselves in another series of meaningful games real soon. After all, it’s a long cold winter until Spring Training.
Denis Crawford, November 2010