The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season on the strength of a swarming defense that set still-standing Super Bowl records with five interceptions and three pick-sixes.
The Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV this past season with the defense once again coming up big in the brightest spotlight. The 2020 Bucs were just the third team ever to hold a Super Bowl opponent without a touchdown and they did it with relentless pressure against a Chiefs team that had never before failed to find the end zone in a game started by Patrick Mahomes.
The 2020 Buccaneers had Tom Brady and a loaded offense, of course, and the 2002 squad got huge Super Bowl outings of Michael Pittman, Keenan McCardell and a highly-motivated offensive lines. Both teams routed their opponents by more than 20 points. Both wins were just as impressive for the team's offenses. Still, it's likely that both Super Bowl victories will be remembered most for how the Tampa Bay defense performed.
That '02 defense is now legendary. Three of its starters – Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch – are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a fourth, Ronde Barber, was a finalist for the Hall this year. Five Buccaneer defenders made the Pro Bowl that year despite egregious snubs of Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly. There were Associated Press first-team All-Pros.
It will be a long time before we know if the Buccaneers' current defense has spawned any more Hall of Famers. What we do know, however, is that only one player from that squad – outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul – made the Pro Bowl, and none were first-team All-Pros.
Obviously, the Buccaneers' current defense doesn't yet have the recognition or widespread respect of the Sapp-Brooks-Lynch crew, but its goal nonetheless is to uphold the tradition that that crew established. If they succeed, that recognition is likely to follow.
"It was a standard," said cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who intercepted a pass in three straight postseason games leading up to the Super Bowl. "They set that foundation of how aggressive defenses play, especially being a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. So they set that foundation that guys behind them had to follow. We get to that same level, that same spotlight and we put on in front of millions of people that same type of defense that everybody knew we could do and were capable of. It just says a lot. I think that it flows throughout our entire team, just that Tampa Bay tradition."
To be fair, that 2002 defense dominated throughout the entire season and had already been viewed as one of the league's best coming into that campaign. The Bucs had ranked in the top 10 in defense each of the five previous seasons and in the top three three times. In 2002 they held opponents to a league-low 277.8 yards per game and, incredibly, had 31 interceptions while allowing just 10 touchdown passes.
The current defense is much newer to the league's elite, having ranked no higher than 15th in any of the previous four seasons. There were some established stars with the likes of Pierre-Paul, Lavonte David and Shaq Barrett and an obvious star-in-the-making in Devin White, but the secondary was famously motivated by a preseason NFL.com article that ranked it 32nd out of 32 NFL teams. The Bucs were very good on defense in 2020, especially down the stretch, but that wasn't necessarily obvious to a lot of observers. Thus the lack of postseason accolades.
"I think a lot of guys on our defense should have been noticed a little bit more," said defensive lineman Vita Vea, who put that group over the top when he surprisingly returned from an ankle injury for the last two postseason games. "Our linebacker group and a couple of our guys on our D-line - like our outside linebackers - they could have gotten noticed a little bit more, but it doesn't matter. We're here to win games and all of the accolades that come with it. It's just a plus. We're just here to win.
"When we ended our last game last year in the Super Bowl I think we got a glimpse of how good we can be. I think it's just a challenge for us to see how well we can do it as a unit, a defense. It's not going to be the same as last year obviously. We have to start over, but it's exciting to see where we can take it."
So how do the Buccaneers, who finished sixth in the league's defensive rankings last year plus fifth in both sacks and takeaways, take it to another level and follow the Tampa Bay tradition of dominant defenses over spans of multiple seasons? Murphy-Bunting said their goal is to be at the top of all those rankings in 2021. How do they get there? By starting over and putting in all the work. By pinpointing what they need to improve and focusing on those things intently. And that effort starts from the top with its coordinator, Todd Bowles.
"On Day One [of training camp], before we ever stepped on the field, Coach Bowles went around the whole room and basically told every guy their weakness that was on the team last year," said White. "He told them we need to get better at it, so there's no complacency over here and nobody's staying at ground zero."
If the 2002 team has provided the standard for the current squad, it is Bowles who will drive the players to meet that standard. Monte Kiffin, who this season will be inducted into the Buccaneers' Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium, was the beloved figurehead of that last great Tampa Bay defense. Bowles provides the same foundation for his crew. Kiffin, remarkably, was the Bucs' defensive coordinator for 13 seasons, a stretch that included 11 top-10 finishes. Bowles may not make it that long if other teams start poaching the Bucs' staff for head coaches soon, but even his three seasons at the helm have provided a continuity and an opportunity for growth that the players love.
"He holds us all to a higher standard," said Murphy-Bunting. "I just know that for me, it's a big game-changer being able to come into camp already knowing the entire defense and just adding more pieces to that. And for Coach Bowles being a DB - he was a DB growing up, so he has a higher expectation for the guys that are in the backend because he's actually done that. Just having that mindset, having that mentality to always go get it and to just key in on everything, and be that secondary that [thinks], 'We don't want to get scored on, we don't want you to catch balls, we don't want you to do anything.' We want to hold our defense to the highest standard possible."
Most importantly, Buccaneer defenders have fully internalized Bowles' message that they can't expect last year's success to automatically make them one of the league's best in 2021. And if they want to hold up that Tampa Bay tradition and start getting the recognition they deserve, they have to focus on what they didn't do right last year. And then do that very same thing again in 2022.
"I mean we weren't perfect and we can never be perfect," said Davis. "There is always work to do, and there's always something to get better at. Complacency is the worst thing for an athlete so we are just trying to correct what we didn't do well and get better at that while continuing to do the things we did do well."