WR Joe Jurevicius had a big impact on the Bucs' Super Bowl run in 2002
Factors in Joe Jurevicius' favor, as we saw it: The 71-yard catch-and-run that turned the tide in the 2002 NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia; the two stunningly acrobatic touchdown grabs the next September in Philadelphia; a handful of additional dazzlingly memorable plays.
Factors that could count against him, as we saw it: Injuries that limited him to 30 games and eight starts in three seasons as a Buccaneer; final Tampa Bay numbers (76 catches, 874 yards) that don't stack up to the likes of Keenan McCardell (145-1,844), Ike Hilliard (131-1,343) or even running back Michael Pittman (284-2,361).
The fans? Safe to say they put more weight in the first paragraph above, and we can't blame them. Jurevicius leg injuries – most stemming from a freak downfield collision against Carolina that also shelved fullback Mike Alstott for most of the 2003 season – may have kept him from building on his outstanding first season as a Buccaneer, but that first season was something special.
Simply put, Jurevicius is remembered as one of the heroes of Tampa Bay's greatest seasons to date, and for that reason he is – say Buccaneer fans – one of the best free agent acquisitions the team has ever made.
Last week, Buccaneers.com endeavored to pinpoint the 10 best signings by the team in the modern free agency era. That era is defined as beginning in 1993, when the NFL's new Collective Bargaining Agreement gave players true free agency for the first time. That agreement has dramatically altered the landscape of the NFL since, and it has put some of the most productive players in team history in red and pewter (or orange and red, for the first few years).
The first part of the task was easy. It was our opinion that three of the team's unrestricted free agent signings since 1993 were clearly the most significant: linebacker Hardy Nickerson (1993), quarterback Brad Johnson (2001) and defensive end Simeon Rice (2001). Those were selections one, two and three on our list, in that order. To review our reasoning on those choices, click here.
We also took a little of the guesswork out of the formation of the rest of the list by specifically excluding last year's class of free agents. It was an excellent class for the Buccaneers, to be sure, as the likes of quarterback Jeff Garcia, fullback B.J. Askew, linebacker Cato June and several others helped the Bucs rebound from a 4-12 mark in 2006 to another division title in 2007. Had we left that group eligible, it's likely that at least Garcia would have done well in the subsequent poll. However, we chose to keep last year's class out of the voting as it has only had one season to prove itself so far.
Even with that group excluded, it still proved quite difficult to narrow down the rest of the list of possibilities to a top 10 list. Which seven signings should join those of Nickerson, Johnson and Rice as the most impactful to date?
Should we prefer Jurevicius' brief but memorable run to the more steady contributions of Hilliard (or perhaps find room for both)? Would Pittman's six steady seasons earn him a spot on the list? Was the signing of defensive tackle Chris Hovan – a starter and top run-plugger for three years and counting now – more important than that of John Wade, who was essentially the team's starting center for five years?
Now we know the answers…or, at least the fans' answers. A fan poll within our original article included 15 choices from which we would draw the final seven names for our list of the Buccaneers' 10 best free agent signings since 1993. Fans were asked to vote for up to three players on the list. The voting lasted a week; it has now concluded and the results are below.
First, here are the 15 choices that were up for vote and the years they were signed (for a brief recap on each player, click here for the original story):
- P Josh Bidwell, 2004 * K Matt Bryant, 2005 * C Jeff Christy, 2000 * DT Brad Culpepper, 1994 * TE Jackie Harris, 1994 * WR Ike Hilliard, 2005 * DT Chris Hovan, 2005 * WR Joe Jurevicius, 2002 * LB Lonnie Marts, 1994 * CB Martin Mayhew, 1993 * WR Keenan McCardell, 2002 * T Roman Oben, 2002 * RB Michael Pittman, 2002 * DE Greg Spires, 2002 * CJohn Wade, 2003More than 11,000 votes were cast in the poll, and the results were mostly cut-and-dried. Six players received 10% or more of the votes, taking spots 4-9 on the list. The final spot was hotly contested between two choices, as you will see. Here is the list of the top 10 Buccaneer free agent signings since 1993, the first three of which were determined by Buccaneers.com.
- LB Hardy Nickerson (Buccaneers.com choice) 2. QB Brad Johnson (Buccaneers.com choice) 3. DE Simeon Rice (Buccaneers.com choice) 4. WR Joe Jurevicius (23% of vote) 5. DT Chris Hovan (12%) 6. WR Keenan McCardell (12%) 7. P Josh Bidwell (11%) 8. DT Brad Culpepper (10%) 9. K Matt Bryant (10%) 10. WR Ike Hilliard (8%)Jurevicius received nearly twice as many votes as any other candidate and was the only selection on the list who received more than 2,000 votes. The fans couldn't speak much more strongly than that.
That still left room for both McCardell, who was also a key figure on that 2002 Super Bowl team and who followed with a Pro Bowl-caliber 2003 season before being traded in 2004 as the result of a salary dispute. Hilliard also made the list and could eventually be seen as an even better choice if he continues to produce as he has done the last three years. In 2007, the steady veteran was the Buccaneers' leading pass-catcher with 62 receptions.
Still, Hilliard just edged Pittman, who received 7% of the vote. Pittman is surely the most statistically accomplished player not on the list, as he used his six Buc seasons to rise to fourth on the team's all-time rushing list and 13th on its all-time receptions list.
Other notes from the fans' selections: * Either the Bucs have gotten steadily better at exploiting free agency or there was a definite current-era bias to the voting. Despite putting together some very strong seasons after signing with the Buccaneers, the mid-90s trio of Mayhew, Marts and Harris drew almost no support in the voting. * There was no bias, however, against kickers. Buccaneer fans apparently appreciate the importance of a strong kicking game, giving a good number of votes to both Bidwell and Bryant. Indeed, Tampa Bay's punter-kicker combo for the last several years is probably the strongest it has had in franchise history. * Culpepper made the fans' final list despite our mild caution that he wasn't quite in the same class of free agents as the others. He had played just two seasons in Minnesota and hadn't really established himself as a league regular at that point; he had been released by the Vikings before signing in Tampa. However, that didn't make him ineligible by our definition, and the fans remembered how well he teamed with defensive tackle Warren Sapp for a good part of the 90s.Hardy Nickerson was essentially the first player the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed in the modern free agency era, and that acquisition has proven to be difficult to match. Still, the team has dipped very successfully into the open market on quite a few occasions, as illustrated above. Perhaps Garcia or June or even one of this offseason's newest Buccaneers will muscle their way onto that list soon. Still, thanks to the fans, we have a list of the top 10 Buccaneer free agent signings…so far.