RB Warrick Dunn, who grew up a Cowboys fan, will get his first opportunity to take the field against Dallas on Sunday
Karl Williams was raised in Dallas. Warrick Dunn grew up a Cowboys fan. George Hegamin used to wear the blue star on his helmet. Derrick Brooks has a hometown link with Emmitt Smith. Tony Dungy still remembers the feeling of playing against Dallas when he was a Pittsburgh Steeler defensive back.
Take any game on the schedule, any season, and you can come up with a list of connections such as this. Yet, it's rarely worth mentioning, let alone the lead topic in the locker room, as it was on Wednesday and Thursday. What everyone wants to know from the Buccaneers is not just how they're going to play the Cowboys, but how they feel about suiting up against Dallas.
And the Bucs happily answered those questions, because this is an event for Tampa Bay. Many of the team's younger players were in high school or college when Dallas was taking the league by storm through the first half of the 1990s, when players like Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Leon Lett became household names.
"This is the first time I'll be able to play against a team that pretty much was my favorite team growing up," said Dunn. "It's going to be fun to play against future Hall of Famers and the history of that team. They're going to play with pride."
Dungy wouldn't blame any of his players that put a a little blue star next to this game on their schedules. The last Tampa Bay-Dallas game occurred on October 21, 1990 and not a single player from that Buccaneer squad is still on the team. A large majority of Tampa Bay's roster is homegrown, so most of these Buccaneers have never played Dallas, period.
"You look at a team that still has a lot of great, Pro Bowl guys, Hall of Fame-type guys, the tradition that the Cowboys have always had, and the fact that we haven't played them in a long, long time," summed up Dungy. "I think it's 10 years now. That's going to be a factor."
However, Dungy would prefer that his team not concentrate on the uniforms but on the current players wearing them. The words 'Dallas Pride' were thrown around in the locker room in connection to the Cowboys' 4-8 record, but this isn't a simple matter of motivation in Dungy's mind.
"Yeah, they do (have pride), but they also come in with some very good players," he said. "That's the thing that we can't lose sight of. They've played well – they played well on Thanksgiving Day and just came up a little short against Minnesota. But they're certainly capable, and we've got to be ready. You never want to not play your best in December."
Hegamin, the former Cowboy from 1994 to 1997 (he owns one Super Bowl championship ring), doesn't think Dallas will have any trouble getting up for the game, which probably has no January implications for the visitors but is critical to the Buccaneers' playoff hopes.
"Oh, trust me, I guarantee you they are not going to lay down," said Hegamin. "That's their mentality – play until the whistle blows, play all 60 minutes, regardless of where they are in the standings. What are they, 4-8 right now? That is just as bad as them coming in here being 12-0, because it's a pride thing. I know the guys that were there when I was playing with them are professionals. They're going to come in and play like it."
Added Brooks: "That's the nature of their whole team. We know Dallas is going to come out and give us their best. We have to match that same intensity, that same energy, and at the same time go out and execute."
That won't be a problem for Williams, who might be more fired up about his NFC Special Teams Player of the Week award than this opportunity to play his former favorite team.
"I grew up a Cowboys fan, growing up in Dallas, but right now, we're on a mission," said Williams. "They're just one more step in our way, just another team coming in here and we've got to take care of business."
However, Williams did admit this about playing against the Cowboys: "It's something that's going to motivate me a little bit more."
And, if any additional motivation was needed, it has not been kept a secret that Tampa Bay is 0-8 all-time against Dallas, including two playoff losses. Obviously, that series was played in a different era and the current Bucs are better equipped to hold their own, but it's still a goose egg that the team would like to get off its ledger. Excluding the Ravens, only Dallas and Cleveland remain on the formerly lengthy list of teams Tampa Bay has never beaten.
Or did we speak too soon? According to Dungy, that 0-8 mark doesn't factor into the motivational scenery.
"Personally, all I can go by – I've played against them in the past and had a tough time," said Dungy. "But we haven't lost to them…we're 0-0 since we've been here. So the history is really not a big part of it."
Rather, the immediate future is more in keeping with Dungy's focus. A four-game losing streak in September and October and an unfortunate loss in Chicago two weeks ago have put the Buccaneers in a more precarious playoff position than they had hoped for. Basically, at 7-5, the team has left itself almost no margin for error.
"No, there's not," said Dungy. "I think we understand that and we've got to come out and play well and certainly have to win. We're not going to be able to lose another NFC game and make the playoffs, I don't think."