The last time the Philadelphia Eagles came to Tampa, Ronde Barber returned not one but two interceptions for touchdowns and the Buccaneers won the game on a last-second, 62-yard field goal by Matt Bryant. Given that Barber tied an NFL record with that performance and Bryant's kick is still the second-longest game-winner in league history, one might expect that 2006 game to be the first memory rekindled by a Buccaneers-Eagles rematch.
Uh, not so much…at least not as long as Barber is still pulling on his #20 jersey for the Buccaneers.
There are few more iconic images in Buccaneers franchise history than #20 loping into the end zone at the soon-to-be-shuttered Veterans Stadium in January of 2003, the football held high in his right hand. Memories of the Lombardi Trophy, similarly raised up high by Malcolm Glazer, Jon Gruden and Brad Johnson might take the cake, but the team was only in position to win Super Bowl XXXVII after Barber clinched the 2002 NFC Championship Game in Philly with his unforgettable 92-yard interception return.
And so it is that the Eagles' next visit to Raymond James Stadium will serve as the perfect anniversary to honor the 10-year anniversary of the greatest Buccaneers team to date. When Tampa Bay and Philadelphia meet for their Week 14 tilt this coming December 9, the Buccaneers will gather the victors from Super Bowl XXXVII and spend the day remembering that magical 2002 campaign.
On Monday, the Buccaneers announced that they will begin selling individual-game tickets for their 10 home games in 2012 this Friday. At the same time, the team revealed its various gameday themes for the season, including the always-popular Throwback Game (vs. New Orleans, Oct. 21) and the annual Breast Cancer Awareness day (vs. Kansas City, Oct. 14). The 1997 team that broke the franchise's 15-year playoff drought and shut down old Tampa Stadium with a postseason win over Detroit will also be recognized on October 14 when Paul Gruber is inducted into the team's Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium.
But few occasions during the 2012 season will be more exciting – and more sure to fire up the mental highlight reel for Buccaneer fans – than the reunion of the squad that demolished the Oakland Raiders, 48-21, in the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance nearly 10 years ago. Returning members of the championship team will be honored at halftime and the Buccaneers will spend the afternoon reliving highlights and fond memories from that 2002 campaign.
The 2002 Buccaneers compiled a franchise-record 12-4 record during the regular season in Gruden's first year at the helm. During its run to the playoffs, Tampa Bay was led by one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history. The Buccaneers finished first in the NFL in both yards and points allowed, as their opponents averaged just 252.8 yards and 12.3 points per game. The pass defense was particularly impenetrable, as the Buccaneers picked off 31 passes and allowed only 10 touchdown throws, holding all opposing quarterbacks to a stunningly low passer rating of 48.4.
NFL Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks led the way with 170 tackles and five interceptions, scoring an amazing four touchdowns of his own on interception and fumble returns. Rice led the pass rush with 15.5 sacks while cornerback Brian Kelly picked off a team-high eight passes. The Buccaneers' defense sent five players to the Pro Bowl that year – Brooks, Rice, safety John Lynch, linebacker Shelton Quarles and defensive tackle Warren Sapp – and had a compelling argument to add Barber and several others.
Tampa Bay's offense, featuring such newcomers as Michael Pittman, Joe Jurevicius, Ken Dilger and Keenan McCardell, took longer to develop that season but hit its stride down the stretch and in the playoffs. Brad Johnson and fullback Mike Alstott made it to the Pro Bowl. Johnson turned in one of the best seasons ever for a Buccaneer quarterback, with 22 touchdowns and a 92.9 passer rating, and threw five more TDs in the postseason. In three playoff games the Buccaneers outscored their opponents 106-37 (the defense's four touchdowns obviously helped), and a sometimes-beleaguered offensive line allowed Johnson to be sacked just once.
After first-round bye and a 31-6 dismantling of San Francisco in the Divisional Round, the Buccaneers defeated the Eagles in the conference championship game to earn their first trip to the Super Bowl. In what remains the only Super Bowl matchup ever between the league's top-ranked offense and top-ranked defense (not to mention league MVP Rich Gannon against Defensive MVP Derrick Brooks), Tampa Bay's defense reigned supreme at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.
The Buccaneers set Super Bowl records by picking Gannon off five times and returning three of them for scores. Safety Dexter Jackson, who had the first two interceptions in the first half to help the Bucs build a 20-3 lead, was named the games' MVP, though he was one of several deserving candidates. Third corner Dwight Smith returned two interceptions for touchdowns – he's still the only player ever to do that in a Super Bowl – and Brooks continued his season-long scoring trend and clinched the game with a pick-six late in the fourth quarter.
Tampa Bay's offense had a fine day, as well. Pittman turned in his best game of the season, rushing 29 times for 124 yards as the Buccaneers controlled the clock against Oakland's high-powered attack. Fullback Mike Alstott scored the game's first touchdown and McCardell added two scores of his own on short passes. Johnson wasn't sacked and he rebounded from a tipped-ball interception on the game's opening drive to lead an efficient and otherwise error-free attack.
At 10:16 p.m. ET, Super Bowl XXXVII ended with linebacker Jack Golden's tackle on a kickoff return after Smith's second touchdown. Minutes later, as confetti rained down on the Qualcomm field and Buccaneer players and coaches celebrated with their families, Owner/President Malcolm Glazer accepted the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history.
The Eagles weren't simple patsies in the Bucs' run to the title that year. That final game in Veterans Stadium (the Eagles moved to the new Lincoln Financial Field in 2003) was the second of an amazing four straight appearances for Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. They would lose the first three before finally advancing to Super Bowl XXXIX after the 2004 season.
More to the point, Philadelphia was a personal hurdle for the Buccaneers, who had been nurturing Super Bowl dreams for a half-dozen years but had gotten no closer than the aforementioned conference championship game in 1999. In 2000 and 2001, promising Tampa Bay teams were sent to Philadelphia to start the playoffs, and in both occasions the Eagles sent them home. In addition, the Buccaneers had traveled to Philly during the 2002 regular season and ended up with one of their only four losses that year, as the Eagles won handily, 20-10. The victory over Oakland in San Diego on January 26, 2003, ranks as the greatest win in franchise history, for obvious reasons, but few trips have been more emotionally significant for the Buccaneers than the one they took to Philadelphia the week before.
Even on that fateful evening in the Vet, the Eagles didn't go quietly. Big plays by Jurevicius, Rice and Keyshawn Johnson had helped the Buccaneers shock the home crowd and take a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter, but Donovan McNabb and the Eagles threatened with a series of big plays. The Eagles were at the Bucs' 10-yard line with three-and-a-half minutes to play; a touchdown and a quick defensive stand could have put Tampa Bay's ticket to the Super Bowl in jeopardy. That's when Barber faked a blitz and baited McNabb into a throw to the left flat that the Buccaneer cornerback picked off and took the distance.
Barber is the only remaining active player from that game on either club's roster, but he won't be alone when it comes time to celebrate that game in Philly, the win in Super Bowl XXXVII a week later and every part of that unforgettable 2002 season. Much of that championship team will gather to celebrate their title run along with tens of thousands of lucky Buccaneer fans who remember that season just as fondly. Hopefully, the 2012 Buccaneers will be just as firmly in the playoff hunt when the Eagles make their return to Raymond James Stadium.
Stay tuned on Buccaneers.com for more details regarding the December 9 reunion of the 2002 Super Bowl Championship team. To purchase tickets to that game or any others on Tampa Bay's 2012 home slate, please visit the Tickets section here on Buccaneers.com or call (800) 745-3000.