RB Aaron Stecker is one of 113 Buccaneers who have tried to record the team's first kickoff return touchdown
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that Tony Dungy inherited in 1996 had gone 13 straight years without making the playoffs or even posting a .500 record. The Bucs promptly lost their first five games under Dungy, the sixth head coach in team history.
Then came one win, over Minnesota, Dungy's former team, and a record of 6-5 down the stretch in '96. Since, Dungy's job has been one of reversing trends, one after the other: persistent road difficulties, late-game collapses, troubles in domes, troubles in the red zone, et cetera.
The one trend that seemed to take the longest, however, likely ate at Dungy. Until late in the 1999 season, as the Buccaneers turned their game up a notch and fought to the NFC Central crown, Tampa Bay had difficulty winning in its own division.
Dungy has by far the best winning percentage of all the Bucs' head coaches (54.3%), but his team is 22-13 in games played against non-NFC Central opponents and just 16-19 when its facing its annual divisional combatants.
That mark was worse, however, before the Bucs went on a six-for-seven tear beginning last December and stretching into this season. It was six straight before Minnesota snipped the string 10 days ago in the Metrodome on Monday Night Football. That six-of-seven run just happens to coincide with QB Shaun King's elevation to the starting lineup.
And it's in danger tonight, with the Detroit Lions due to a pay a visit to Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs haven't lost a home division game since 1998 when…the Detroit Lions came to town! That narrow 28-25 defeat on November 22 remains the only intra-division matchup Tampa Bay has lost in its new home of three years.
Tampa Bay has won two of three games against the Lions since that point, but they still haven't earned a season sweep of Detroit since 1990. That possibility is also on the line tonight, as well as a chance for a three-game winning streak against the Lions, something the team hasn't accomplished since 1981-82.
That stretch is still more recent than the Bucs last appearance on Thursday night. The only other time the Bucs have played such a midweek affair came way back in 1980, when they played host to the Los Angeles Rams. It was a revenge game of sorts, as L.A. had ended Tampa Bay's 1979 Super Bowl run with a 9-0 victory in Tampa Stadium in the NFC Championship Game. The Bucs reworked the formula on that September 11 Thursday night, allowing the Rams nine points again but scoring just enough to win, 10-9.
Maybe of more obvious concern is the Bucs desire to snap a three-game losing streak, built on three consecutive fourth-quarter or overtime defeats. Tampa Bay has lost three games in a row on three other occasions since that first five-game skid under Dungy, but the downturn has never reached four games. The last two three-game losing streaks ended in high-scoring affairs, a 31-28 win at Indianapolis on November 2, 1997 and a 31-17 win at Chicago on November 29, 1998. Coincidentally, 31 points is also the total Tampa Bay posted in its last game against the Lions, a dominating 31-10 win in the Pontiac Silverdome this past September 17.
In that contest, the Buccaneers scored their four touchdowns in the conventional manner (though a TD reception by G Randall McDaniel stretches that term). In three of their six games so far, however, the Bucs have scored on a return by one of their two starting cornerbacks, Donnie Abraham and Ronde Barber. Last Monday in Minnesota, Abraham snatched a blocked field goal on one hop and ran 53 yards for a touchdown. Previously, Barber scored on a 24-yard fumble return against Chicago (September 10) and a 37-yard interception return against the New York Jets (September 24).
Those three defensive scores are already nearing the Buccaneers' team record for a single season, set in 1981 when it found the end zone in that manner five times. It also equals the number of defensive scores the Bucs had managed in their first four seasons under Dungy (1996-99).
Not every turnover has led to a touchdown so directly, but many of the Bucs' 14 takeaways have resulted in points eventually. In fact, 52 of Tampa Bay's 150 points, roughly one-third of its 2000 scoring output, have been the result of the team's 14 takeaways. That would put the team on pace for 138 points off turnovers in 2000; they had exactly 90 such points in both 1998 and 1999.
The Bucs have also scored three times on punt returns since Dungy's arrival in 1996, but what they have not done – stop us if you've heard this one before – is return a kickoff for a score. Ever.
Since the team began play in 1976, 113 different Buccaneers have combined to make 1,455 kickoff returns, and not one has gone the distance. Obviously, this note could be broached before every Buccaneer game, but we'll deem it relevant now because Tampa Bay's return game is improving and they seem to have discovered just about every other way to score.
With RB Aaron Stecker taking over on kickoff returns and taking a very north-south approach, the Buccaneers are seventh in the league in kickoff return average (25.1 yards per runback). Last year, Tampa Bay ranked 20th in kickoff return average.
With the Bucs keeping Detroit out of the end zone for most of the day in the last meeting, Stecker got only kickoff return against the Lions, picking up 15 yards. For the season, however, Detroit ranks just 24th in the league in stopping kickoff returns, allowing a 24.8-yard average. They have also not been burned for a kickoff return touchdown, but there's a first time for everything. At least that's what the Bucs' special teams unit would like to believe.
Stecker would like to end that preposterous Buccaneer kickoff return streak. The team as a whole is champing at the bit for a chance to end the team's three-game skid. And Coach Dungy wants to the Bucs' intra-division losing streak immediately, even if it is only one game long. They'll all get their opportunities in just a few short hours.