Welcome to The Hook, my weekly column that hooks you into a different Tampa Bay Buccaneers topic each Thursday. I invite you to offer me some feedback on The Hook below in the article comments section.
The NFL’s second-longest playoff drought is finally over.
The Buccaneers are heading to the postseason for the first time since playing and losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in 2007.
I was at the game and while I can’t remember how I came to get tickets. I do remember my son and I sat at the very top of Raymond James Stadium around the 20-yard line. I still get winded just thinking about the walk to the top of the stadium that afternoon. That’s a long steep walk.
Bucs QB Jeff Garcia – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
I also remember my son was seven years old.
Douglas Cook is now 20.
He was a big Bucs fan at the time, and while he still would say today Tampa Bay is his favorite football team, he isn’t as passionate as many are. Being a bad football team for over a decade isn’t the best way to cultivate and grow a fan base.
There was a time when Bucs fans were a little spoiled. From 1997 until 2007, the Bucs made the playoffs seven times, including winning four divisional titles and the team’s one and only Super Bowl in 2002.
When we walked down the ramps underneath Raymond James Stadium disappointed and listening to annoying Giants yucking it up after that loss in 2007, who would have known it would be 12 more seasons before the next postseason appearance?
In this week’s The Hook, I decided to take a walk down memory lane and revisit those 12 seasons. Most will be painful reminders of an organization that couldn’t get out their own way many times during that span, but remembering all the failures should make this season more special.
2008 Season: 9-7 – The End Of The Gruden Era
In 2008, the top grossing movie of the year was The Dark Knight, TV fans were glued to American Idol and Flo Rida was singing “Low” all the way to the top of the charts. Low was exactly how the Bucs’ season ended however. After a terrific 9-3 start, the wheels fell of the Bucs’ bus and the team lost its last four games, including an embarrassing loss to an awful Raiders team quarterbacked by JaMarcus Russell, 31-24. A couple weeks later head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen were fired. Little did Bucs fans know how bad the next decade was about to become. Best Win: 30-27 (OT) over the Chiefs Worst Loss: 31-24 to the Raiders
Derrick Brooks – Photo by: Getty Images
2009 Season: 3-13 – Dominik And Morris Take Over
The 2009 season was a year to forget. Tampa Bay and new general manager Mark Dominik first said goodbye to one of the top Bucs of all-time in linebacker Derrick Brooks, then continued to gut the roster from the 9-7 season the year before, cutting loose quarterback Jeff Garcia, running back Warrick Dunn, along with receivers Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway among other bigger names. Dominik brought in Byron Leftwich and then drafted Josh Freeman to play quarterback. Maybe the most bizarre thing that took place in that three-win season was the firing of offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski before the final preseason game. Say what? How bad do you have to be fired before the first regular season game? Later in the season Tampa Bay replaced Jim Bates as its defensive coordinator, with first-year head coach Raheem Morris took over play-calling duties for the defense. Best Win: 38-28 over the Packers Worst Loss: 24-0 to the Giants
2010 Season: 10-6 – Freeman And The Race To 10
Fans and media call it the “smoke and mirrors” season, as Tampa Bay managed to win 10 games and narrowly missed the playoffs in a tiebreaker to the Packers. To make matters worse, Green Bay went onto to win the Super Bowl as an NFC wild card team. The Bucs’ 10 wins were helped by the fortune of playing the NFC West, and four of their 10 wins (Arizona, Seattle, Los Angeles, St. Louis) came from the league’s weakest division. To be fair, the Bucs should have won 11 games but the NFL officials made a horrendous offensive pass interference call on tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., who they claimed pushed off a Lions defender that nullified a touchdown. That cost the team four points as they ended up settling for a field goal before eventually losing 23-20. So technically they should have been in the playoffs, and the Lombardi Trophy the Packers won partly belongs to Tampa Bay. Morris said the 2010 season was a “race to 10” from the beginning. He should have said, “race to 11” instead. Best Win: 38-35 over the Cardinals Worst Loss: 23-20 (OT) to the Lions
2011 Season: 4-12 – The Great Fall Dooms Morris
Expectations were high coming into 2011 with the Bucs narrowly missing the playoffs the year before and Freeman in his third year. Things were right on track early in the season as Tampa Bay started off 4-2 and headed to London for a game with Chicago with lots of momentum. The Bucs lost that international series at Wembly Stadium, but they lost much more. Something happened in London that has yet to ever be fully explained, and the Bucs never saw another win the rest of the season, losing nine more games and finishing on a 10-game losing streak. Down the stretch the Buccaneers were hardly even competitive, getting blown out more and more as the season went on. Covering the team and open locker room was dreadful for reporters as players had little desire to speak to the media and mainly steered clear of the locker room when we had media availability. And the ones who did bother to show up were more interested in card games and blaring music. The final straw happened in Week 17 when Tampa Bay played a New Year’s contest in Atlanta and were down 42-7 at halftime. The next day the Glazers fired Morris and the entire coaching staff, and the Greg Schiano regime was up next. Best Win: 20-17 over the Saints Worst Loss: 48-3 to the 49ers
Bucs RB Doug Martin – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
2012 Season: 7-9 – Toes On The Line!
Schiano’s tenure wasn’t all bad. In fact it started off pretty good with the Buccaneers winning seven games and setting a team record with 5,820 yards of total offense and 389 points. Freeman also set a team record for passing touchdowns (27) and became the first 4,000-yard passer in franchise history. After a slow start to the season the Buccaneers got into playoff contention, reeling off five wins in six games before a late-season collapse doomed them. Rookie Doug Martin ran for 1,454 yards and the Bucs found a star linebacker with Lavonte David in the draft. Things appeared to be trending up in Tampa Bay – or so we thought. Boy were we ever wrong as Schiano’s “toes on the line” militant toughness wore on the players, who didn’t have his back by the end of the season. Best Win: 38-10 over the Chiefs Worst Loss: 41-0 to the Saints
2013 Season: 4-12 – MRSA, MRSA, MRSA!
The 2012 season wasn’t a great year for the Bucs, but 2013 might have been the worst since the mid-1980s. The wheels completely feel off the wagon and it started early when Freeman missed the team photo and was also not voted a team captain. Many still claim Schiano rigged the vote, but Schiano looked me in the eye directly that year and told me he had nothing to do with the results. He even told me he saved the ballots in his desk for those that might question it. I tend to believe Coach. But the captain’s vote was just beginning to the meltdown of 2013. Freeman overslept and nearly missed the final bus to the stadium when Tampa Bay opened the season in New York. A MRSA outback in the facility that cost free agent Carl Nicks part of his toe and brought on a lawsuit by kicker Lawrence Tynes, as the infection cost both players their NFL careers. Freeman’s regression didn’t help, and led to an 0-8 start that ultimately resulted in the benching and release of Freeman. The 2013 season was a complete and utter disaster. Even by Buccaneers standards. A 4-12 record and all the turmoil ended up costing Schiano and Dominik their jobs. And it was on to another coach. Lovie Smith time was just around the corner. Best Win: 22-19 over the Dolphins Worst Loss: 18-17 to the Jets
2014 Season: 2-14 – Clueless, And Winless At Home
Led by new head coach Lovie Smith, the 2-14 Buccaneers were a huge disappointment. Smith was hired to bring some calm to the organization and restore the team to its glory days from the 1990s as Smith was on Tony Dungy’s original staff. At least the Bucs drafted future Hall of Fame wide receiver Mike Evans. But it was also the year of free agent disasters like Anthony Collins, Michael Johnson, and Josh McCown. Let’s just say it wasn’t new general manager Jason Licht’s best season, yet it ended in an obvious tank job by a Bucs team that led the Saints at halftime before pulling a number of starters in the second half to guarantee a loss and secure the overall No. 1 draft pick in the NFL Draft. Smith claimed the Bucs, who went winless at home for the first time since 1976, didn’t tank for the No. 1 pick, but anyone who watched that game knew what was happening. Best Win: 27-24 win over the Steelers Worst Loss: 23-20 to the Saints
Bucs GM Jason Licht & Ex-Bucs HC Lovie Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
2015 Season: 6-10 – Bucs Weren’t “Tennessee Ready” The 2015 campaign ushered in the Jameis Winston era. Expectations were high and things seemed to be looking up with a new dynamic quarterback, who was the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Not everyone was pleased with the Winston selection, as fans were divided between him and Oregon star Marcus Mariota. Winston went No. 1 and Mariota was selected by the Titans with the next pick, and the two would face off in the season opener in Tampa. Mariota got the best of Winston that afternoon, 42-14, in the “We Weren’t Tennessee Ready” game. Winston threw an interception on his very first NFL pass attempt and it was returned for a touchdown, and was a precursor of things to come over the next five seasons unfortunately. The season ended on a four-game losing streak and Licht and the Glazers decided to fire Smith and his staff after just two dismal seasons. Best Win: 45-17 over the Eagles Worst Loss: 42-14 to the Titans
2016 Season: 9-7 – Close, But Not Close Enough Under Koetter
Tampa Bay stayed in house with its next head coach, promoting offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter as head coach. Koetter and the Bucs nearly made the playoffs, but two losses in the last three weeks of the season cost the team a spot in the postseason. Still Koetter’s Bucs had an impressive, mid-season five-game winning streak that included wins over the Bears, Chiefs, Seahawks, Chargers and Saints. Fans and the organization were cautiously optimistic things were finally about to change. Best Win: 19-17 over the Chiefs Worst Loss: 31-24 to the Saints
2017 Season: 5-11 – Bucs Get Hard Knocks, Then Get Knocked Around
It was supposed to be the Bucs’ season in 2017 as Tampa Bay was expected to be back in the postseason for the first time in a decade coming off a 9-7 campaign with Winston entering his third season in the NFL. And the momentum wasn’t just felt from local fans, as HBO Films set up in Tampa for the sports mini-series Hard Knocks. The season ended up being a real life series of hard knocks as it began with a Week 1 postponement of Tampa Bay’s opener against Miami due to Hurricane Irma. The Bucs were banged up early in the season, had kicking issues – again – and players like Chris Baker and DeSean Jackson were flops as free agents. It was a bad year all around from, coaching to players, no one living up to the lofty expectations and once again Bucs fans were let down. Best Win: 31-24 over the Saints Worst Loss: 26-20 (OT) to the Packers
2018 Season: 5-11 – Koetter Gets Cut
Koetter entered his third season on the hot seat, but the organization was still cautiously optimistic that 2017 was more of an anomaly or slight bump on the way back to respectability. Things started with a distraction even before the season began, as Winston was suspended by the NFL for the first three games for an Uber incident that happened in 2016. The Bucs started 2-0 with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, but a Week 3 loss to the Steelers on Monday Night Football began a slide that resulted in just one win over the next eight games. That would eventually cost Koetter and his staff their job. Winston’s inconsistent play, along with a defense that couldn’t stop anyone left the Bucs 5-11 once again and fans scratching their heads wondering if this team would ever sniff the playoffs again.
Best Win: 48-40 over the Saints Worst Loss: 48-10 to the Bears
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
2019 Season: 7-9 – Bruce Almighty Arrives, Winston Departs
The team hit the reset switch once again with its fifth coaching hire since the Bucs’ last playoff appearance in 2007, this time convincing former Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians to come out of retirement. If anyone was going to fix Winston, the expectation was the “Quarterback Whisperer” would be able to do it. While Winston and the offense set franchise records for yards, touchdowns and other significant franchise marks, the thing that had plagued Winston dating back to his final year at FSU – turnovers – not only didn’t improve, but got worse. Winston threw for 33 touchdowns, but also a league-high 30 interceptions. His final pass for the Buccaneers – just like his very first – was a pick-six, and after five seasons in Tampa Bay the Winton era was over. Best Win: 55-40 over the Rams Worst Loss: 28-22 (OT) to the Falcons
So now here we are, Bucs fans. New quarterback Tom Brady capped off a tremendous season in which he accounted for 43 touchdowns at the age of 43 and helped guide the Bucs to an 11-5 record, and a long-awaited playoff berth. The Bucs will take the field on Saturday night in a meaningful January game for the first time since 2007. It took 12 mostly miserable seasons, and more crazy storylines than any script writer in Hollywood could ever conceive of, but Tampa Bay is once again contending for a Super Bowl in January. Enjoy it Bucs fans, and let’s pray we don’t have to wait another 12 seasons for the team’s next trip to the postseason.
Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, the beach and family time.Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org