The Bucs haven't played in Lambeau Field since 2001
Considering the transient nature of the profession, NFL head coaches are used to homecomings. They're all over the schedule.
Just a few days ago, Buffalo Head Coach Mike Mularkey came back to Tampa, the site of his first NFL job, and he brought with him Quarterbacks Coach Sam Wyche, who was the Buccaneers' head coach from 1992-96. Later this season, the Bills will go to Cincinnati, where Wyche took the Bengals to the Super Bowl in the '80s.
Tampa Bay Head Coach Jon Gruden is certainly familiar with the phenomenon. To earn the league title in 2002, Gruden's Bucs had to get through the San Francisco 49ers, for whom he started his NFL career, then travel to Philadelphia, where he made his name as the offensive coordinator for three years. In the Super Bowl, the Bucs were matched against Oakland, the team Gruden left to come to Tampa…the town in which he grew up.
So a trip back to Green Bay, where Gruden first began to rise through the profession as a receivers coach under Mike Holmgren, is nothing more than another blip on the schedule, right?
Well, not exactly.
Lambeau Field may not be the birthplace of football, but it feels like it. At the very least, it is the symbolic seat of the game's tradition; it feels like football distilled to a purer form. Being that it was also where Gruden started his rise through the ranks, at the same time that Hall of Fame-bound QB Brett Favre did, there's even more of a draw to the place for the Bucs' coach.
"It's just great tradition," said Gruden. "That venue…in my opinion, if you're nostalgic, if you love football, that's just a special place. I just don't know, I don't know what it is; it's just a special place.
"I coached there for three years, so I can honestly say, maybe, I know something about it. It's just that they've had such great teams; they've had a quarterback who's not been chopped liver. That has a lot to do with their success."
The Bucs play in Lambeau on Sunday, marking Tampa Bay's first trip back to Green Bay since the NFC Central's swan song in 2001. It is Gruden's first trip back since 1999, when he was in his second year as Head Coach of the Raiders.
The few Bucs remaining from the team's last visit to Green Bay probably have a love/hate relationship with the place. Thanks to a series of narrow losses through the late '90s and early '00s, the Bucs haven't won in Lambeau Field since 1989, during a down period for both teams. For many years, the Packers also represented the hump Tampa Bay had to get over before they could finally get to the Super Bowl, much as New England is for Indianapolis right now.
The Bucs' breakout 1997 season ended in Green Bay, after a home win over Detroit to start the playoffs. The 2000 season ended in Philadelphia in the Wild Card round, a game the Bucs wouldn't have had to play if they had kicked a field goal at the end of regulation in Green Bay and thus won a first-round bye in the season's final week. The Bucs lost 26-23 in Lambeau in 1999 and 21-20 in 2001.
Now, however, they have a chance to give their season some positive momentum in Green Bay. Off to their first 2-0 start since 2000, the Bucs head to Wisconsin this weekend looking for only the fourth 3-0 beginning in franchise history. The Packers, meanwhile, will be looking to avoid their first 0-3 start since 1988 after losing their home opener on Sunday to Trent Dilfer and the Cleveland Browns.
That predates even Gruden's time in Green Bay. When the Bucs' coach first joined Holmgren's staff in 1992, Don Majkowski was the Packers' starting quarterback and a young Favre, just acquired in a trade with Atlanta, was the backup. Then Majkowski suffered an injury in Week Two – at Tampa Bay, of course – and the Packers inserted Favre in Week Three. He hasn't missed a start since.
Favre's streak is at 207 straight starts, easily an NFL record for his position. During his 14 seasons at the helm, he has thrown for over 50,000 yards, racked up 379 touchdowns, won a Super Bowl and three league MVP awards and beaten the Buccaneers 15 times in the regular season.
However, like the Packers, Favre is not off to his hottest start ever. He does have 543 passing yards and three touchdowns through two games, but he has also been picked off four times, sacked five times and held to a 76.1 passer rating. It's clear that there is both opportunity and danger in those numbers for the Buccaneers' defense.
That defense is off to a very good start, ranking first in the league in yards allowed, rushing yards allowed and first downs allowed through two games. The Bucs forced five turnovers at Minnesota two weeks ago, then held Buffalo to 147 yards last Sunday. Brian Kelly already has two interceptions, Derrick Brooks one, and the defense was in position to pick off several more passes against Buffalo.
Still, Gruden sees this game as a very serious challenge for his defense and the Buccaneers as a whole, despite the two teams' reversed records.
"There's a good feeling in that locker room right now," conceded Gruden. "But it's eye-opening because we've got to go to Green Bay this week and it seems like forever since we won at Lambeau. So, we've got a tough, tough challenge ahead of us."
Green Bay's offense is still ranked 11th in the league, and that's without a consistent rushing attack developing yet. But the Packers' defense is 22nd, 23rd against the pass, and probably still trying to define itself with a number of young players in the starting lineup. Playmaking safety Darren Sharper is now in Minnesota, cornerback Mike McKenzie is a Saint and the dean of the Packers' starting secondary is now former Philadelphia CB Al Harris. He is joined by LCB Joey Thomas, SS Mark Roman and FS Nick Collins.
Of course, the Bucs have been more concerned with running the ball when they've had it through the first two games. Making repeated use of breakout rookie RB Cadillac Williams, Tampa Bay actually has more rushing yards (337) than net passing yards (326) at this point. Only two other teams in the league have that kind of split right now, neither of which has had as much overall offensive success as the Bucs – Atlanta (315 rushing, 227 passing) and Houston (208 rushing, 133 passing).
Fighting a foot sprain, Williams will be facing the league's seventh-best rush defense on Sunday, but as Gruden points out, he's not doing it alone. The Bucs have been very pleased with their offensive line play and they're also getting blocking help from the other eligibles on offense.
"He's creating things for himself, there's no question, but he is getting some good looks," said Gruden of the rookie back. "He hasn't been hit and stymied initially very often. We've been able to get him started, and at times getting him through the line of scrimmage is an outstanding thing for him because he's an exceptional runner. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit, but our offensive line has given him, I think, some consistent looks at the hole. He's been able to see the initial hole and he's been able to cut the ball back because of good back-side blocking. And when we get out into space, I've not seen anybody block by Michael Clayton ever in football as a wide receiver. He is a great blocking wide receiver. So it's a collection of efforts right now in the running game. We're very proud of what we've done for two weeks and we also realize we have a long way to go."
As thrilled as the Bucs are with their 2-0 start, they also know that one third of the teams that open the season that way, on average, do not make the playoffs. There is, indeed, a long way to go, but the team could take a big step forward by moving to 3-0 with a win at storied Lambeau Field. That would continue the validation of the team's offseason efforts to reboot the system after two losing seasons.
"We don't feel that we were a bad football team last year, we were 5-11, but we went back and evaluated carefully, we thought we could have won nine or 10 games last year, easily," said Gruden. "We felt we need to make some changes, we need to address some areas that obviously weren't very good, and we made every effort to do that and we will continue to add players to this team and I think gain steam as we move forward." **