Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Furious Five

At one point, the top five tacklers in Buccaneers history were all on the field at the same time, and they remain an interesting part of the franchise’s story more than a decade later

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On December 7, 1998, the defending-NFC-Champion Green Bay Packers visited brand new Raymond James Stadium for the first time, ready to take on their old NFC Central rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Packers were 8-4 at the time, on their way to an 11-5 season and a Wild Card berth.  The Buccaneers, coming off their breakout 1997 season, were only 6-7 but as it turned out would be in the playoff hunt right up until the final minutes of the season's last week.

The Green Bay Packers were a hurdle the Buccaneers would find in their way multiple times during Tampa Bay's rise to prominence in the late-1990s and early-2000s.  On this particular occasion, the Buccaneers won, thanks largely to long touchdown passes from Trent Dilfer to Bert Emanuel and Jacquez Green and an incredible eight sacks of Packers quarterback Brett Favre.

The Bucs' soon-to-be-legendary defense was on full tilt that Monday night, playing at its swarming best.  Leading the team in tackles was linebacker Derrick Brooks, with 17.  Next was cornerback Ronde Barber, with nine (he also added a sack and two forced fumbles).  Safety John Lynch contributed six tackles and a pass defensed.  Linebacker Shelton Quarles, not even a starter yet, pitched in with three stops.

Linebacker Hardy Nickerson wasn't on the field at the time; his 1998 season had been cut short by an unusual infection of the sac around his heart.  But in 1999, Nickerson returned for a final season with the Buccaneers and Quarles moved into the starting lineup.  The Buccaneers would field one of the NFL's most dominant defenses (Warren Sapp won NFL Defensive Player of the Year), and Barber, Brooks, Lynch, Nickerson and Quarles would all be on the field at the same time.

Why is that significant?  Check out the top five tacklers in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history:

Player

Years

Tackles

  1. Derrick Brooks

1995-08

2,196

  1. Ronde Barber

1997-Pres.

1,260

  1. Hardy Nickerson

1993-99

1,028

  1. Shelton Quarles

1997-06

985

  1. John Lynch

1993-03

973

Of course, it's not news to Buccaneers fans that this defense was particularly good.   In Week Three of the 1999 season, the Bucs beat the defending-champion Denver Broncos, 13-10, allowing just 173 yard of offense.  Brooks, Barber, Lynch and Nickerson were four of the teams' five leading tacklers that afternoon.  They were at different points in their NFL careers – and Quarles was just three games into being a starter – but they were all well on their way to being Buccaneer icons.

They aren't the only defensive studs in franchise annals, of course.  Lee Roy Selmon is the team's only real Pro Football Hall of Famer to this point, and while sacks were his main game he still has a ton of career tackles.  Richard Wood, Cecil Johnson and Dave Logan racked up the tackles as well.  Underrated linebacker Jeff Davis is eighth on the Bucs' all-time tackle list.  But the Tampa Bay franchise hit a resurgence in the 1990s when it found a deep group of outstanding defenders, and even now, a decade-and-a-half later those players still form a very interesting group.

Especially now.

The five leading tacklers in Tampa Bay history are relevant in a variety of ways in 2011.  One was still one of the team's best defenders in 2010.  Two will soon become the subjects of serious Hall of Fame conversations.  Another has found a new way to help the Buccaneers win.

Did Barber, Brooks, Lynch, Nickerson and Quarles, teammates in 1998 and 1999,know how they would be affecting the Buccaneers franchise at the beginning of the 2010 decade?  At that point, they probably never guessed how significant they would prove to be in team history.

Lynch is eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame vote in 2013, and Brooks a year later.  While that's still a few years away, that won't stop the debate from occurring in the intervening months.   Selmon is the only player who spent all or the majority of his career as a Buccaneer who is currently in the Hall of Fame.  Buc fans are hopeful this will change in the near future, as recognition comes to the crew that turned the franchise around in the 1990s.  Lynch and Brooks will be test cases.  Lynch made the Pro Bowl nine times and was considered one of the hardest-hitting players of his generation.  Brooks revolutionized his position, racking up defensive touchdowns almost consistently as he piled up the tackles.

Barber is of interest for Buccaneers fans for an entirely different reason.  He was still one of the team's most effective defenders in 2010, and thus his status for 2011 is a serious consideration.  Barber was voted onto the NFL's 2000s Team of the Decade, and he carried that excellence into the second decade of the millennium.  That he is the second-leading tackler in team history – ahead of a multitude of linebackers and defensive tackles – might be one of the most impressive things about this career.  At a position that is defined by interceptions (he has those , too, as the team's all-time pick leader), Barber has made a living by being tougher than the next man.  If he gets four more sacks, he will join safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Ray Lewis as the only 30-sack/30-interception men in NFL history.

Quarles arrived in Bucs camp in 1997 as a little-known free agent who had most recently played in the Canadian Football League.  He immediately became the team's best special teams player and just two years later was starting on the strong side.  He moved to middle linebacker in 2002 and that took his career to yet another level; he would make the Pro Bowl that season and help Tampa Bay win its first Super Bowl.  Quarles' impressive career came to a conclusion in 2006 but that wasn't the end of his impact on the franchise.  A year later he joined the Bucs' front office as a pro scout and has helped shape the team's player acquisition since.  This January, Quarles was promoted to coordinator of pro scouting in the team's personnel office.  He takes on a key role in the overarching plan that General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris have been enacting since January of 2009.  That plan has helped the Bucs simultaneously refresh its roster – they are now the youngest team in the league – while fielding a team that appears as if it will be in playoff contention for years to come.

Nickerson, who played three more seasons with Jacksonville and Green Bay after leaving the Buccaneers after the 1999 season, is not involved with the franchise at this point, but he remains one of the most respected figures in team history.  He returned in 2006 to spend one season as a color analyst for game broadcasts on the Buccaneers Radio Network.   He has also worked as an assistant coach in the NFL and is currently the head football coach for an Oakland-area high school.

The top five tacklers in franchise history intersected for a short but fascinating period of time in the late 1990s.  More than a decade later, those five are still a very interesting part of the Bucs' narrative, past, present and future.

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