Head Coach Tony Dungy has seen slow starts from the Bucs before but faces a new set of challenges this fall
Almost exactly a year ago, during a 2000 season that saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers struggling with an early, four-game losing streak, the Minnesota Vikings came to town. The Vikings were undefeated at the time; Tampa Bay was reeling at 3-4 after a 3-0 start to the season.
The Bucs won that game against Minnesota on October 29, 41-13. They would lose just twice more during the regular season and come within minutes of overtaking the Vikings for the division championship before falling at Green Bay in overtime on the final weekend.
With the Vikings again coming to town this weekend and the Bucs limping out to a 2-3 start, last year's turnaround could be a source of inspiration. Surely, in these tough times, the Bucs could fall back on the experience of overcoming an inexplicably slow start last year, and in 1998 and '99 before that.
Except for new starting quarterback Brad Johnson, that is. He was in Washington. Oh, and starting defensive end Simeon Rice was toiling away for the Arizona Cardinals. As a Florida Gator, starting left tackle Kenyatta Walker was more worried about Florida State than the Vikings last fall. Dwight Smith, who is returning most of the Bucs' kickoffs this season, was at Akron, and recent free safety fill-in John Howell was still a Colorado State Ram. Defensive coaches Mike Tomlin and Joe Barry can't offer any perspective from that 2000 Buc season, as they were with the University of Cincinnati and the San Francisco 49ers, respectively.
The fact is, Head Coach Tony Dungy, who has led the Buccaneers through a great many reversals of fortune, can't simply rely on experience to turn his current team around.
"Not every one has been here," said Dungy. "We've got some guys that haven't been with us, haven't been through that. Hopefully, they'll listen to the other guys and to coaches when we say, 'This is what we need to do,' but every team is different."
Yet, he says, "There's no reason we can't come on and get going."
If anything, expectations are higher this year with those critical new additions, with the breakthrough of WR Keyshawn Johnson in his second season as a Buccaneer, with the team on most preseason short lists of Super Bowl contenders. The Bucs' current lull may be similar in some ways to those of the last three falls, but there's a perception that the stakes are higher this year, that the team needs a bigger push to get over this latest hurdle without succumbing to disarray.
"That will be the test of our coaching staff, our veteran leadership and our young players, to see if we hang in there," said Dungy, not downplaying the situation despite his legendarily calm approach. "We always have in the past and there's no reason for me to think that we won't now. I believe we will."
There are signs that the 2001 Buccaneers, despite the new faces, are approaching this latest challenge with a 'bunker mentality,' drawing closer as a team to stave off dissension. Dungy has helped his previous team through rough starts by convincing them to stick with the team's original plans, believes his team will once again succeed with that mentality despite outside cries for change.
"I think so," said Dungy. "I think there's going to be a lot of suggestions about what we should do and what we ought to do, a lot of thoughts about the season being lost, and it certainly isn't at this point.
"We're sitting with a lot of teams at three losses, which we don't want to be, but I think there are eight playoff teams from last year that have three losses right now. It's not the end of the world, but we can't just wish it to be better. We've got to make it happen and we've got to start playing a little better."
In the meantime, the Bucs will bear the criticism – and the parting shots of opposing players, on occasion – without letting it get in the way on Sundays.
"Criticism is fine," said Dungy. "You get praise when you win and criticism when you lose. If you lose games you're going to get criticized. What we have to do is win. Whether it's justified or not, it can't have an effect on your play. The same thing, if we get on a winning streak we have to block out the praise. Every week we have to go out there and get the job done.
"What we've got to do here is get going on our second division stretch, starting this week. It's a game that we really have to win, then go from there. A lot is going to be made about all the negatives, and there certainly are some, but we've just got to start playing ball. When we do, I think we're going to be okay. But we can't wait too long, obviously."
What makes that turnaround potentially more difficult to execute is that the team is struggling in some key areas more than it was last year at this time. Whereas the 3-4 start of 2000 was built on a few shocking breakdowns against the Jets and Redskins and a back-and-forth loss at Minnesota, the 2001 team is 2-3 mostly because of problems in what are usually its strong suits, defense and the running game.
The 2000 team was 10th in the league in running the ball and 6th in overall defense after five games last season. This year's Bucs rank 30th and 14th in those two areas, respectively. Dungy believes that his team is still strong in those fundamental categories, but proving so is going to be the Bucs' litmus test in the coming weeks.
"We've got to do that," said Dungy of turning the numbers around in those two areas. "If we don't, it's going to be a long year. We've got to get back to basics and fundamentals. We've got to stop the run and be able to run it, and not fall behind in the first half and get out of our game, where we can't run in the third and fourth quarter. Defensively, we've just got to get back to playing the way we know how to play. We've got enough good players over there to be able to do that. We've just got to get off to better starts. The big thing is fundamentals – not panic too much, not worry about what we have to change in terms of basic philosophy, but just play better.
"We just have to continue to work and not get discouraged by our record, not get discouraged by where we are and just continue to play like we have in the past."
Dungy's Bucs overcame those 3-4 starts of the past three seasons in part by refusing to dwell on them, refusing to let them tear the team apart. That's the simple formula again in 2001, if the execution may be a bit tougher.
"We can't go back and play those other games and 'what if' them," said Dungy. "The only thing we can do is work on Minnesota and be ready to play."