Monday Night Football returns to Tampa Bay this week after a seven-year absence, and for head coach Raheem Morris and his “youngry” team, it’s a chance to make a statement about how good this 2-1 Buccaneers really is before a nationally televised ESPN audience when they take on a 0-3 Indianapolis team.
“We have an identity here, its just no one has recognized it yet,” Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, a veteran of 15 Monday Night Football games, said. “We have great young players on this football team. This is their chance. I think they are really going to embrace it. I think they are all excited about getting this opportunity. It’s been so long since we have been on Monday Night, none of these guys have a feel for what it is like to play in prime time. We will do our best to get them ready.”
Tampa Bay right tackle Jeremy Trueblood has played in just two Monday Night Football games, both were losses at Carolina, and is eager to get his first victory on a Monday night.
“We’re just excited to finally get back on national TV,” Trueblood said. “We’ve played a few games on it, but not nearly enough. We’re just excited about the opportunity.”
The last time the Bucs were on Monday Night Football was on December 8 at Carolina, a game Tampa Bay lost 38-24. For the team’s younger players, the Bucs veterans who have played on Monday Night Football before are telling them to treat this game as they would any other contest.
“What I have told our guys is it’s just another game,” Barber said. “It’s a day later than we normally play, but you have to treat it like another football game. It is important for us to get this win regardless of its a Saturday night. It’s Monday night, but that shouldn’t matter. If you have a swagger it comes out under the lights.”
Second-year wide receiver Arrelious Benn is buying into the veterans’ mentality and hasn’t let the excitement and hype of playing on Monday Night Football affect him yet.
“It’s another game on a national stage, but I look at it like every game in the league is like Monday Night Football,” Benn said. “It’s the only game that’s on and it will be the chance for everybody to catch one of our games in person. It’s going to be fun. It hasn’t hit me yet, but as it gets closer it will hit me that I’m playing on Monday Night Football. You have the introduction and all of that stuff. It’s going to be cool with a packed stadium and all of the graphics how they play it. It’s definitely going to be big.”
Benn said that while the opportunity for the Bucs to have a breakthrough performance on a national stage is intriguing, just getting a victory over the Colts is what counts at the end of the night.
“I think we made the step in our own little world first, and that’s all that matters,” Benn said. “If they recognize us, they recognize us. All we care about are wins. For us to have a Monday night game is cool, but we’re not going to get caught up in. We’re going to do what we need to do to get a win, shake it off and get ready for next week.”
The Colts will be playing without Peyton Manning, and possibly Kerry Collins, who suffered a concussion in Sunday night’s home loss to Pittsburgh. Even if Curtis Painter gets the start in place of Collins, Tampa Bay’s defensive players know they will still have their hands full.
“They have Reggie Wayne, [Pierre] Garcon, [Austin] Collie and Dallas Clark,” said Bucs safety Corey Lynch, who could start in place of Cody Grimm, who was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday. “They still have a lot of weapons. They are still a good team.
“No one expects Manning to play, obviously. They are a different team [without him]. They just don’t have the checks they normally have with him where if they see eight in the box, they are throwing and if they see seven in the box they are running.”
When asked if he is disappointed by not having the opportunity to face Manning and the challenge that comes with a Colts offense at full strength, Barber laughed.
“Can I say ‘hell no?’” Barber said. “You obviously want the best for Peyton, you don’t want him to be hurt. I’ve known Peyton for a long time. But like I said, this is a different team without Peyton. He was the cog that made that offense go especially. There is a reason why he has won so many league MVPs. He is a special type of player. So far this year they haven’t found that guy to replace him. They still have the same talent. They still have Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. Joseph Addai looks awesome running the football right now. We aren’t going to take them lightly because he’s not there.
“That is obviously a factor [not having Manning]. They’ve got the young quarterback [in Painter], and they had Kerry [Collins] for a few plays. They are a different team without Peyton, but we are still going to prepare for them like they are the team that has dominated the NFL for a lot of years.”
The last time the Bucs played the Colts in Tampa Bay it became one of the most memorable Monday Night Football games in NFL history as Indianapolis stormed back from a 35-14 deficit with five minutes remaining to tie the Bucs and win the game in overtime, 38-35. Barber remembers that crushing defeat all too well.
“I am the only one [left] that remembers that one,” Barber said. “And believe me, that was a great game for 55 minutes. We scored a touchdown late on an interception; I scored a touchdown late (laughs). But they showed their resiliency. They had a great quarterback. It was a frustrating loss. I still cringe when I see those highlights on NFL Network as one of the best comebacks ever. This is our chance, this 2011 team, to prove who we are and I think we are all excited about it.”
Most of the young Buccaneers on the current roster, like backup quarterback Rudy Carpenter, watched that Monday Night Football game in amazement.
“I was still in high school, I was a senior in high school,” Carpenter said. “They were down 21 points in the fourth, right? I remember watching and then everything fell in place [for the Colts]. Getting those onside kicks were so lucky, too. [Tony] Dungy was coaching [the Colts], right? That game was pretty wild.”
Morris is looking forward to playing in front a wild Tampa Bay crowd that hasn’t hosted a Monday Night Football game in seven years.
“The atmosphere in Tampa Bay is always great on Monday Night Football,” Morris said. “We have one of the best stadiums there is with the pirate ship and our fans. It’s exciting. I’m fired up to get back out there on Monday night in front of our fans and do some good things on the big stage.
“We love the stage, and yes, it matters. You are the one team playing and everybody else is watching you. We always end early on Mondays so we can go watch Monday Night Football. We’ve got Jon Gruden coming back to town – we’ve got the old boss coming to town and we’ve got to have a good showing. He is watching me. He is going to be up in that box and I’ve got to make him proud. Monday Night Football is huge and it’s big. It always has been.”