This SR’s Fab 5 column on the Bucs is exclusively serviced by Discount Garage Doors – the official garage door company of PewterReport.com. If you are in need of a new look for your garage doors or if you are in need of repairs, turn to Discount Garage Doors. Whether it’s a broken cable or springs or a crooked door, Discount Garage Doors can help you out. Click here for a list of locations as Discount Garage Doors services 17 Florida counties and The Villages.
Summer is almost here and that means HURRICANE SEASON in Florida! Get your home and your garage doors outfitted with hurricane protection kits today. Call 866-420-DOOR or visit DGDoors.com to view Discount Garage Doors list of services and garage doors that can be installed to improve the look of your home. And remember, Discount Garage Doors offers FREE service calls. Don’t wait – call today!
Mention PewterReport.com and SAVE 10% OFF your order or service call at Discount Garage Doors!
SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Remembering The Bucs’ Quirky 1998 Season
Tampa Bay was coming off an unexpected winning season under a coach who had been on the staff for two years. The next year was a season full of sky-high expectations.
Having just signed an undersized, speedy star receiver in free agency, the Bucs became the media darlings in the offseason, and preseason favorites to make the playoffs and possibly win the division. Instead, the team underwhelmed, underachieved and didn’t make the playoffs.
No, I’m not talking about last year’s Buccaneers.
I’m talking about the 1998 Buccaneers.
If you thought last year was full of unexpected twists and turns from being under the microscope of the HBO Hard Knocks cameras, to a Week 1 bye week due to Hurricane Irma to narrow losses due to missed field goals to an injured quarterback and a defense that suddenly became allergic to touching opposing quarterbacks, the 1998 season was whacky, quirky and downright befuddling.
Tampa Bay’s 2017 season didn’t feel right from the start, and that’s exactly how it felt in 1998, too.
The Bucs’ 1998 campaign always stuck in my craw for some reason. After making the playoffs in 1997, Tampa Bay missed the postseason in ’98, but then returned to the playoffs from 1999-2002. I’ve always wanted to revisit that year, and there are enough parallels to last year’s underachieving Bucs season to make it relevant.
So if you were a Bucs fan back in 1998, be prepared to jog down memory lane. If you weren’t a Bucs fan back then, buckle up as you learn about one of the wildest, roller coaster seasons in franchise history.
To help me on this journey I put the word out to several former Bucs players, but given the topic and the bad memories associated with a season gone wrong I wasn’t surprised when my calls and texts weren’t returned by a majority of them. But I did enlist the help of former Bucs center Tony Mayberry, a three-time Pro Bowler, and defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, who was coming off a 10-sack season in 1997, to help me tell the story of that fateful season.
Like all NFL seasons, we begin in the offseason. Tampa Bay had just come off a 10-6 season to end a 13-year playoff drought. After a 20-10 victory over Detroit in the NFC Wild Card playoff game at Houlihan’s Stadium, the Bucs lost a hard-fought playoff game in Green Bay, 21-7. The Bucs placed a franchise-record eight players in the Pro Bowl.
The 1998 season was primed for success after the team’s breakthrough ’97 campaign. There was only one problem.
Construction on the new Raymond James Stadium was lagging and the NFL gave the Bucs two road games to start the season before Ray-Jay would see its debut in Week 3. As if that were bad enough, the NFL also placed the Bucs in Canton, Ohio for the Hall of Fame Game against Pittsburgh, which meant that Tampa Bay would have five preseason games that year – all on the road.
“The NFL had it out for us because we had that great 1997 season, so they kicked us in the gut,” Ahanotu laughed. “It was tough. It was tiring traveling to all those plays. It’s always easier to roll out of bed, drive to the stadium and go play football.”
The Hall of Fame Game was followed by a game against Kansas City in Oklahoma that saw the team sit at the airport nearly the entire evening due to the fact that the flight crew had logged too much on-duty time per airline regulations and a new crew was needed before takeoff. After a road trip to Miami, Tony Dungy’s troops traveled long distance to Oakland before the preseason finale in New Orleans. In the span of five weeks the Bucs traveled 15,485 miles.
“It was crazy when you think about it,” Mayberry said. “Coach Dungy had us locked in to deal with certain adversities. That was one of the things he tried to use to keep us focused and unified as we went through tough times together.”
Little did the Bucs know, the madness was just beginning.
The 1998 season began with two road games at Minnesota and Green Bay. New wide receiver Bert Emanuel, who was acquired via free agency with a rich contract, would hurt his knee against the Vikings in the 31-7 loss and miss several weeks. Wide receiver Jacquez Green, who was Tampa Bay’s second-round pick, set a franchise record with a 95-yard punt return for a touchdown in a 23-15 loss to the Packers.
The Bucs got their first win of the 1998 regular season in Week 3 in the first game ever at the new Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay trailed Chicago 15-0 at halftime before rallying for 27 points in the second half for a 27-15 victory. Tight end Dave Moore caught a pass one-handed and raced 44 yards for a touchdown to help key the comeback, and Warrick Dunn ripped off a 44-yard touchdown to help seal the win.
Tampa Bay’s winless streak on the road would continue on Monday Night Football a week later as the defense couldn’t contain running back Barry Sanders, who rushed for 131 yards and rookie cornerback Terry Fair returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown. Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer threw a pick six and had two touchdown passes called back due to penalties in a 27-6 defeat.
Ahanotu, one of the team’s best defensive players, was lost for the year during the Detroit game.
“One of the things was that I got hurt and didn’t play the whole season,” Ahanotu said. “That was the only season where I missed that many games – I only played in four games. I got hurt in the spring because Frank Middleton decided to hit me full force on my shoulder with no pads on. Me and Frank didn’t get along, but I abstained from retaliating. I’m still pissed off about it to this day. You don’t have to go full speed and clock people in the spring, Scott. You know how that works. I was doing a spin move from the left end position into Frank and he was going full force and he jammed me up and it popped my shoulder out.”
Ahanotu swears that his absence in 1998 was a big reason why the team failed to make the playoffs.
“In 1997 – that was my breakout year,” Ahanotu said. “We went to the playoffs for the first time, and that offseason I was primed to have my best season – a Pro Bowl season. I was in my best shape ever and the game was slowing down for me and then I got hurt in the fourth game of the season. … Because I was lost for the season that year is why we didn’t make it to the playoffs and why it was kind of an off year.
“I know that sounds pompous and self-centered, but from an analysis standpoint, people don’t realize that anytime I wasn’t there, Warren didn’t have a double-digit sack year. People didn’t realize how important I was to Warren because we ran a lot of games. He and I made magic out there. We knew each other and what we were doing. We had timing. We could do it with our eyes closed. Even though we didn’t get along at the end, but we made magic out there and it’s those little things people don’t realize.”
Sapp’s weight had ballooned up that season and he recorded just seven sacks that year, and was tied with defensive end Regan Upshaw for the second-most QB kills behind nose tackle Brad Culpepper, whose nine sacks actually led the Bucs that year. So perhaps Ahanotu has a point. When Ahanotu was healthy and returned in 1999, he produced 6.5 sacks, while Sapp had a then-career-high 12.5.
Back to the 1998 season. Not only did Tampa Bay start the ‘98 season 1-3, the Bucs were also 1-3 in the division after that loss at Detroit.
Two more home games were the tonic for the team’s ails, as the Bucs defense asserted itself in wins against the New York Giants and the Carolina Panthers. Safety Charles Mincy had a pick-six off Danny Kannell in the first quarter as Tampa Bay’s defense held New York’s offense to only 135 yards. Kannell was intercepted three times in a 20-3 victory. Dilfer passed for only 85 yards in that game and was shows signs of regression, rather than building on a breakout, Pro Bowl season he had the year prior.
The Bucs edged the Panthers 16-13 after trailing 13-3 in the fourth quarter. Dilfer rushed for a touchdown and then threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Karl “The Truth” Williams in the end zone with 1:39 left in regulation to help Tampa Bay reach .500 with a 3-3 record.
Tampa Bay’s road woes continued in New Orleans as the Bucs offense sputtered in a 9-3 loss in the Superdome. Tampa Bay had the ball inside the 25-yard line three times, but came away with zero points. Dilfer threw an interception, tight end Patrick Hape fumbled at the 3-yard line and a touchdown pass to Bert Emanuel was ruled incomplete because officials ruled he trapped the ball.
The Bucs’ helter skelter 1998 season resumed with another home win – this time against a Minnesota team that would eventually wind up 15-1 with its only loss at Tampa Bay, 27-24. Derrick Brooks picked off Randall Cunningham to help the Bucs take an early lead following a Warrick Dunn touchdown. The Vikings would rally and take a 24-17 lead in the third quarter following a 17-17 tie at halftime. A field goal and a touchdown run by Mike Alstott would allow the Bucs to prevail, and Alstott’s 38-yard run in crunch time sealed the victory. Alstott (128 yards) and Dunn (115 yards) both eclipsed the century mark on the ground for Tampa Bay in its biggest win of the year.
However, the Bucs’ 4-0 record at home would be challenged by Tennessee in a Thursday night game. The Bucs were down 24-22 with two minutes left in the game and Tampa Bay’s defense needed a big stop on third-and-8 at the Oilers’ – yes, they were still the Oilers back then – 29-yard line to get the ball back and have a chance at a game-winning field goal. After being flushed from the pocket, quarterback Steve McNair scrambled 71 yards for the game-clinching touchdown as the Oilers won 31-22. The Bucs were back below .500 at 4-5.
The Bucs began to dig themselves quite a hole with another pair of losses. Tampa Bay remained winless on the road, losing at Jacksonville as the Jaguars came from behind to win 29-24 after a 70-yard touchdown from running back Fred Taylor with just over two minutes remaining.
The Bucs would lose their second straight home game the following week against Detroit. Tampa Bay trailed 21-7 before rallying in the second half, but Dilfer threw an interception in the end zone and the Lions survived, 28-25.
Tampa Bay finally broke through on the road and got its first road win in six tries with a 31-17 win at Chicago. Ronde Barber would score his first NFL touchdown on a blocked punt and Dilfer threw a Hail Mary touchdown to Brice Hunter to end the first half with Tampa Bay leading 21-14. At 5-7, the Bucs were still in the hunt for a playoff berth, but needed to go on a wining streak.
After a 15-year absence from hosting Monday Night Football, prime time returned to Tampa Bay on December 8 when Green Bay came to town. MNF commentator Dan Dierdorf pissed off Sapp and the defense during the pre-game, lamenting how few sacks the Bucs had put up in 1998 compared to its franchise-record 44 in ’97. That lit a fire under Sapp and Co., and Brett Favre was sacked eight times and fumbled six times in a 24-22 victory. Dilfer connected on two touchdown bombs – a 64-yarder to Green and a 62-yarder to Emanuel in the first half, before running for a 6-yard TD in the fourth quarter. The Bucs were now 6-7.
“Didn’t we beat Pittsburgh at home?” Mayberry said, recalling the 16-3 win the following week. “It was a rainy day and that helped us because their defense was really good. I remember that. I think the rain played to our advantage. It became kind of a ‘mudder’ game, and that’s what we were good it.”
Tampa Bay was 7-7 and controlling their own destiny. Two more wins would likely ensure a Wild Card spot, but then came a Week 16 loss at Washington, 21-16.
“I remember that game,” Mayberry said. “It wasn’t pretty, was it? We had a couple of games … you know, football is a funny thing the way the ball bounces.”
The Bucs had built a 16-7 lead late into the fourth quarter when Green fumbled a kickoff when the score was 16-13 with just over six minutes remaining. The Bucs had two chances to come back to win, but Dilfer threw two interceptions to end both of those drives late in the game. Tampa Bay fell to 7-8 on the season and would be assured of missing out on a winning record in Dungy’s third year as head coach.
Tampa Bay needed to win its Week 17 game at Cincinnati to have any chance of securing the final Wild Card spot in the NFC playoffs. Warrick Dunn (89 yards) and Mike Alstott (69 yards) would combine for 158 yards on the ground with Alstott scoring three touchdowns. Dilfer was 10-of-16 for 111 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, while Tampa Bay’s defense had two interceptions in a 35-0 shutout.
The Bucs needed to win in Week 17, and for the Giants to beat the Eagles and the Chargers to beat the Cardinals in order to get into the playoffs as the last Wild Card team. Tampa Bay and New York did their part, but on the play ride back home the Bucs learned that Arizona beat San Diego on a last-second 52-yard field goal to advance to the postseason. The Bucs would be eliminated by the time they touched down in Tampa Bay.
The wild 1998 season was over.
“It’s hard to remember that specific season, but what was vivid in my mind was the flight back from Cincinnati,” Mayberry said. “That was the only we could get in the playoffs as we did not control our own destiny at the time. It was just such a disappointment finding out that Arizona won. I think I purged the rest of that season from my mind.
“Now that you’ve brought this to my attention I am kind of amazed by that year with all of the things that happened starting from the very beginning. We did get to see the Hall of Fame, though. That was kind of cool. So my memories of that season pretty much consist of the Hall of Fame and the plane ride home from Cincinnati. Everything in between those two events was just a blur.”
There were some distinct similarities between the 1998 Buccaneers and last year’s Tampa Bay team. Both teams were overhyped media darlings before the season and both underachieved. Both the ’98 and 2017 Bucs had at least seven fewer sacks than the previous season and neither team had a player with double-digit sacks. Both teams struggled away from Raymond James Stadium with the ’98 Bucs posting a 2-6 record on the road, while last year’s Tampa Bay team went just 1-7.
The key for the ’98 season was that the Bucs bounced back and posted a then-franchise-record 11-5 season the next year, winning the division and advancing to the 1999 NFC Championship Game. Will this year’s Tampa Bay team follow suit and (finally) make the playoffs, too?