The Bucs know their in for a rugged battle Sunday against the 49ers
It looks like a misprint in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' media guide, to be honest.
It's right there in the list of game scores from 1999, the season in which the Bucs started out 3-4 but finished 11-5 and came within four minutes of winning a berth in Super Bowl XXXIV. Tampa Bay won eight of its last nine regular-season games, including six in a row heading into mid-December.
But there it is in black and white, the one loss in that delirious nine-game stretch. It comes three weeks after the Bucs fly cross-country and dominate Seattle, 16-3. It lands right after two huge NFC Central division games in which former third-string quarterback Shaun King leads the Bucs to wins over Minnesota and Detroit.
There it is: Oakland 45, Tampa Bay 0.
Coaches and players on NFL teams don't like to spend much time looking back, especially in public. There's not much point in dwelling on past failures, or getting too confident about past successes. Neither has much bearing, any coach will insist, on the next game.
And yet Buccaneer players were reminded of that Oakland game this week, not because they are playing the Raiders again, or even because they're about to fly out for another West Coast game.
No, the lesson here is that you can't take any game for granted.
Of course, that's a lesson any player will swear he learned a long time ago. Still, sometimes it doesn't hurt to throw a little reminder out there. Or a big, 45-point, white-washed-on-the-road, long-flight-home reminder.
"Yes, we got embarrassed one time we went cross country and played Oakland," said cornerback Ronde Barber, one of only a handful of current Bucs who were around for that 1999 game. "[Defensive Coordinator] Monte [Kiffin] reminded us this morning and we came back and beat Green Bay which was a good football team at the time. You don't expect teams to stay down long. They're professionals too, they all get paid, they all take pride in what they do and we'll get their best shot."
See, the Bucs were the NFL's hottest team at the time and the Raiders were closing out a mostly disappointing season, taking a 6-7 record and virtually no postseason hope into the closing weeks. Division games against the Green Bay Packers – the one team the Bucs felt they had to overcome – and at Chicago – where victory had almost always eluded Tampa Bay – waited on the other side of the trip out West.
Did the Bucs "look past" the Raiders – and their intense head coach, Jon Gruden – that weekend. They certainly claimed that they did not at the time, and no one can ever know for sure. Still, the result of the game made it clear that it was the team's worst performance of the year.
The 2005 Buccaneers, off to a 5-1 start that matches the best in franchise history and puts them at the top of the NFC standings, are about to cross the nation for a game against the 1-5 San Francisco 49ers. These 49ers, victims of 31-14, 28-3 and 52-17 defeats in their last three outings, have slipped to the nether regions of the league's offensive and defensive rankings. They're three games out in their own division, four behind the Bucs in the conference and dealing with a slew of injuries while breaking in rookie quarterback Alex Smith.
And they're the most dangerous team on the Bucs' schedule, because they're in the NFL and they're next. Buccaneer players and coaches believe that the 49ers are capable of beating anybody on any Sunday. If you don't agree, they would say, it's because you're putting too much stock in the above statistics.
"I really don't pay that much attention [to rankings]," said defensive end Greg Spires. "It doesn't mean much because those guys are coming off a loss. When you come off a loss you want to go out there and prove that you can play in this league. Those guys are going to come out next week with a chip on their shoulder and they are going to play their best game."
Gruden, now the Bucs' coach, is more concerned with the 49ers' victory, and another one that just barely slipped away. The St. Louis Rams went into Monster Park on opening weekend and came away with a 28-25 loss to the 49ers, one that is still killing them in their divisional race with the Seattle Seahawks. The Dallas Cowboys were the next team into the Monster, two weeks later, and they needed a 15-point comeback in the fourth quarter to pull out a three-point win. These are the things Gruden sees on tape, the hard evidence that renders numbers like 31 (the Niners' offensive rank) and 32 (their defensive rank) meaningless. Or worse: misleading.
"I could care less about the statistics," said Gruden in a familiar growl on the subject. "I've got the Dallas film if you want to watch it. It's in there and the Rams game is in there. I'm going to leave it at that. I'm not going to underestimate this team at all. They've got really good players and they'll be there Sunday at one o'clock."
Until a few weeks ago, Tim Rattay was one of those 49ers. He led that win over the Rams as the starting quarterback and had Dallas on the ropes two weeks later. He was traded to the Buccaneers 10 days ago, but until that news dropped he had been one of the many Niners totally committed to turning the season around. Rattay knows his former teammates are dangerous.
"They are going to come out and play hard," he said. "That's one thing with the 49ers. Obviously, the last couple of years, their record hasn't been that good, but they will come out and play hard, and they'll fight. Guys here know that, and we understand that. It's going to be a tough game definitely."
Rattay's trade followed a season-ending knee injury to Tampa Bay's starting quarterback, Brian Griese. Now Chris Simms is at the helm, and his first start of 2005 will come against the league's 32nd-ranked pass defense, which is missing starting cornerbacks Mike Rumph (injured reserve) and Ahmed Plummer (ankle surgery). But, true to the feelings of the rest of the Buccaneers, Simms is more focused on what the 49ers' defense has than what it is missing.
Among the strengths of that defense, which is now operating out of a 3-4 front, is veteran Pro Bowler Bryant Young, rising linebacker/defensive end Andre Carter and Julian Peterson, easily one of the league's best linebackers. They've sailed through some pretty difficult straits this year, thanks to the 49ers' negative-eight turnover ratio and league-worst time-of-possession average of 24:46, and that helps explain some of the uglier numbers.
"I think their defense is pretty talented, especially the two guys off the edge, Peterson and Andre Carter," said Simms. "If you look at a defense, you can't always go by the numbers and stats. They're a pretty good defense, but it's probably the offense that has struggled a little bit so they've been put in some tough situations. That can be tough for a defense; points are scored on them or whatever. There are no easy weeks in the NFL and you've got to be on your game week-in and week-out."
None of which is to say the 49ers' season has gone swimmingly. After the 52-17 loss to Washington last Sunday, linebacker Derek Smith said the game was not "a step in the right direction." Fullback Fred Beasley, a locker-room leader, said he felt like the team was "six feet deep." Even if all of the other statistics truly are meaningless, the 49ers' win-loss record is real, and a problem.
But it may also be a problem for the Buccaneers. Basically, the Bucs are expecting the 49ers to play like a team with nothing to lose, and that's potentially dangerous.
"They're just doing anything they can to get a win right now," said safety Jermaine Phillips. "You know they're going to pull out all the stops, all the trick plays, the onside kicks. We've just got to be prepared for everything. They've got a couple of receivers who played quarterback in college, so you know we've got to be ready for a couple of passes and things of that nature. I know that right now they're behind the ball, but they're just trying to get some momentum and some form of passion."
And the Bucs don't want to be the ones who give it to them. It didn't feel good in 1999 and it wouldn't in 2005, either.