The last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played a Monday Night Football game at Raymond James Stadium, Raheem Morris was upstairs in the booth near the press box with a handful of assistant coaches. He vividly remembers two things from that November 24, 2003 contest against the New York Giants: safety Dwight Smith flattening wide receiver Amani Toomer in the end zone, and the RJS crowd blowing out his eardrums a moment later.
Smith's hit on Toomer came on a third-down pass from the Bucs' 12 and forced the Giants to settle for a field goal. The Bucs went on to win, 19-13, on the strength of Charles Lee and Thomas Jones touchdowns and a defense that allowed only 212 yards of offense and forced four turnovers.
Morris, now in his third year as the Buccaneers' head coach, was a defensive assistant at the time, which is why he was upstairs in the booth. On Monday, when the legendary Monday Night Football production returns to Tampa for the first time since that November evening in 2003, Morris will get to absorb all the fanfare and emotion from field level. He knows it's an impressive experience from either vantage point.
"You could start with the most recent one, our last win on Monday Night Football versus the Giants," he said. "Watching Dwight Smith get that big hit on… Amani Toomer in the back of the end zone…it was awesome. To hear the crowd erupt right there in our end zone…it was a beautiful sight, the jets going over the stadium, the cannons going off that night. It's always big-time for me."
The Buccaneers have sold out their 65,000-seat home for the game, and judging from the impact that last Sunday's crowd was able to make with fewer numbers in the stands, it should be the loudest three hours in Tampa in quite some time. That's good for the Buccaneers, who are trying to recapture the sort of home-field advantage they enjoyed during the first years of Raymond James Stadium. From the Bucs' debut in their new home in 1998 through the 2002 Super Bowl campaign, the team compiled a .750 winning percentage in home games that was among the best in the league in that span.
Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake said he felt that edge last Sunday when the Buccaneers broke a two-game home losing streak to their bitter rivals, the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta rallied in the fourth quarter after falling behind 16-3, but the Bucs held on to a 16-13 win at the end and Lake believed the crowd had a lot to do with that.
"I'd like to give a shout out to the crowd last week," he said. "We had a little thing, we said, 'Hey guys, let's try to get that crowd going on third down.' Our guys looked at the crowd and tried to get them up, and they responded. The 50,000-strong that were there, that gives us an extra little nudge, and it actually helps our D-Line rush. It helps our guys cover. Having that home field advantage is huge on third down."
Morris appreciated the enhanced volume last Sunday, too, especially after his team had to deal with the same thing the previous Sunday in Minnesota. His first year as a Buccaneers assistant was that 2002 Super Bowl season, and he remembers the electric atmosphere that came to Raymond James Stadium every game day or night. He also thinks that kind of shared experience between fans and players goes a long way towards building the kind of bond he wants his team to re-establish with the community.
"Last week you got a taste of it and it was great, and I can't wait to get them out there again because they've got something to cheer for again," said Morris. "They're starting to know our players' names. We're starting to grow up a little bit, starting to get a little bit older. We're becoming attached back to this community, and that's what we wanted to do from the very beginning. That's starting to happen."
The Buccaneers announced early Friday evening that a sellout for Monday night's game has been achieved and that it will be broadcast locally on ESPN. That, too, is good for those fans who are not among the 65,000 that will be on hand that evening, creating that coveted home field advantage. The Bucs want everybody watching as they attempt to prove they are once again among the NFL's elite teams.
"It's huge," said Morris. "We always talk about it. The best teams show up on Monday Night Football and they show up on Sunday Night Football, and they show up in a big way. If you want to be considered one of those teams and be those guys, there's a reason those teams play in those games, because [the schedulers] think those are going to be the best teams. They're trying to make their predictions. You can't always predict this game, this sport, but you want to be invited back to Monday Night Football. You want to play on Monday Night Football whether you're on the road or at home. It's an awesome stage."
The Traveling Practice Show
The Buccaneers are playing at home this Monday for the second weekend in a row, but in the week leading up to the game they've taken their practices on the road.
To track the Bucs' practices this week, you'd have to connect the dots from One Buccaneer Place in Tampa to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg to the Frank Morsani Football Complex north of the Bucs' home on the USF campus and then eventually back to One Buccaneer Place. Sandwiched between two slightly lighter practices at their own headquarters on Wednesday and Saturday, the Bucs held one workout at the home of the Rays and one at the home of the Bulls.
The early-season Thursday trip to the Trop has become something of a tradition for the Buccaneers the past two seasons, but Friday night's session at South Florida's football home was a new experience. Morris bused his team there in order to give them a taste of playing under the lights before Monday's game.
It's a bit unusual for a team to alter its practice schedule and location so frequently, as NFL coaches and players are usually creatures of habit. However, Morris said his young team has embraced the variety.
"I think they kind of like it," he said. "It's avoiding the mundane or becoming old and getting bored. These guys love to move around. Nobody really complains anymore, it's a funny deal. They like to move and see what I'm going to say next. The iPads have been helpful because I do change so much. It's been good for us."
Great Days in the Bay
While the Buccaneers were holding their Friday practice in the evening at the University of South Florida's football complex, the cross-town Rays were several states away, beginning their playoff series on the road against the Texas Rangers.
The Rays won the game 9-0, continuing the impressive late-season run that landed them the AL Wild Card berth over the Boston Red Sox. The game ended at almost the exact moment the Buccaneers were boarding their buses to return to team headquarters.
That means, at the very worst, the Rays will be tied 1-1 when they return to Tampa for their two home games in the five-game set. The third game of the series is set for Monday at Tropicana Field, beginning at 5:07 p.m. That same night, the Bucs will take on the Indianapolis Colts in the first Monday Night Football game in Tampa since 2003. Morris admits that he'll be paying attention to the Rays score in the hours that lead up to kick off.
"I will definitely know what's going on," he said. "I'm not one of those guys that sits in a corner or hides in the shower before the game. At that point, preparation is done and I'll be going over some last-minute things, but I'll definitely keep an eye on what's going on there."