The Tampa Bay Buccaneers last appeared on the Monday Night Football national stage three seasons ago, traveling to Charlotte for a late-season, 38-23 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Though the Bucs had missed out on the MNF schedule the year before (thanks to a 4-12 record in 2006), they weren't far removed from a fairly regular spot in the Monday rotation. In the 11 seasons from 1998 through 2008, Tampa Bay was featured 14 times on Monday Night Football, including once every season except 2005 and 2007.
Ever since the Buccaneers relinquished the title of 'Defending Super Bowl Champions,' however, they haven't once been able to welcome the MNF lights and cameras to Raymond James Stadium. In just four days, the franchise will play its first home Monday night game since 2003.
Fresh off their victory in Super Bowl XXXVII the previous January, the Buccaneers were scheduled for three Monday night games in 2003, two of them at home. They actually opened the season with a Monday-nighter on the road – unusual for a defending champ – and helped open the new Lincoln Financial Field with a dominating 17-0 win over Philadelphia. Home Monday night dates against Indianapolis and the New York Giants followed in Weeks Five and 12, respectively. The Bucs beat the Giants, 19-13 on November 24, 2003, keyed by Charles Lee's 53-yard touchdown catch…and that's the last MNF has seen of RJS.
The only remaining Buccaneer who played in the last Monday night game in Tampa is 15th-year cornerback Ronde Barber, who fills in the blanks to a lot of those, 'The only remaining Buccaneer…' notes. Barber has seen it all, but he doesn't downplay the impact of the MNF platform because he thinks the nation has not seen enough of his new set of teammates.
"We've been toiling down here in Tampa for a long time, unrecognized," said Barber. "That's somewhat our fault, but you've got to relish the opportunity to play in front of everybody. That's the only game in town that night, everybody's watching and you get a chance to showcase. We'll put our best foot forward and hopefully we can get up on a down team."
The only Monday Night Football game for the Bucs in 2003 that was not described above was not against a 'down team,' but it was against the same club that is invading Raymond James Stadium in a few days. The Indianapolis Colts would finish 12-4 and make it to the AFC Championship Game in 2003, but in Week Five they were underdogs to the defending champs. They were also down, 35-14, with five minutes to play in that game before mounting one of the most incredible comebacks in NFL history and winning 38-35.
Because Barber is the only remaining link to that 2003 Buccaneers team, there isn't much to the potential revenge factor from that painful loss. But he does think it's a good opportunity for the current team to demonstrate its strength and hopefully keep the 0-3 Colts from getting their first win.
"Believe me, that was a great game for 55 minutes," said Barber. "They showed their resiliency. They had a great quarterback. It was a frustrating loss. I still cringe when I see those highlights on NFL Network – 'one of the best comebacks ever.' But this is our chance, this 2011 team, to prove who we are, and I think we're all excited about it."
Barber might think he's the only player on the 2011 team still carrying wounds from that game, but he'd be wrong. It was suggested to defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who was a 14-year-old living in Oklahoma in 2003, that the veteran cornerback was the only player in the locker room who remembered that game, and he disagreed with that idea vehemently, if with a touch of humor.
"No, he's not," said McCoy. "No he's not! I was definitely watching it. Man, I was hurt. Me and my dad had attitudes that night. It was so sick, they let them come back. We're going to do our best not to let that happen again."
McCoy also started to espouse the opposite to Barber's theory about the potential of the Monday night stage – essentially, that this was just another game – but in the end he wasn't too convincing.
"We just want to go out there and get a win," said the second-year lineman. "We're not trying to go out there and show anybody anything. We just want to get a win. It's the next game on the schedule. That's why it's the most important game – it just happens to be Monday Night Football. Now, I'm not saying there's not something spinning inside of me, because I grew up – everybody grew up – watching it."
Running back Earnest Graham actually was on the Bucs' practice squad in 2003, but not until after their final MNF appearance. He has played in a handful of Monday-nighters and other prime-time contests, and he has a good feel for the rhythms of such a week. The same cannot be said for the majority of his teammates, most of whom have been added since the spring of 2009. While he agrees with the notion that the national spotlight is good for his team, he thinks his younger teammates need to be careful not to get too caught up in the hype.
"It's a long week," said Graham. "You tend to get distracted. You're kind of isolated. You kind of have some anxiety there. Because everybody's watching you, you can kind of go out and be a little too anxious. It's a regular week. It's a regular game of football, but of course you have to keep in the back of the mind that we have a chance to have a good showing. You can't ignore and say it's not there, so it's there. But you definitely want the guys to relax and be able to go out and keep building on what we've been doing."
In the end, the job of keeping the players in the right frame of mind – suitably pumped-up but still in control – belongs to Raheem Morris, who will be making his first Monday night appearance as a head coach. Of course, motivation has never been a problem for Morris, who definitely has his finger on the pulse of his young team.
"We're going into a big-time game and a big-time environment," said Morris. "I'm with a bunch of guys who haven't done it before. All hands on deck. Let's go play a great game on a great stage and act like we've been there before. But, the key to that is to go out there and use our formula. Play hard, play fast, play consistent and play smart, and do what we do.
"It's an opportunity for us to show everybody what they've been missing."
Foster Takes Over
Rookie linebacker Mason Foster has excelled at just about every assignment he's been given by the Buccaneers so far. Now he has another one.
Morris has named Foster his full-time middle linebacker going forward, meaning the 2011 third-round pick will now stay on the field in the nickel package and wear the coach-to-player radio receiver in his helmet. Morris began the season by using Foster only in the base, three-linebacker defense and letting strongside linebacker Quincy Black wear the helmet radio and call the defensive plays.
However, with Black out due to a sprained ankle last Sunday against Atlanta, Foster took over those roles and was a revelation. Morris hinted in the days that followed that the rookie might hold onto that job permanently, even when Black returns, and he made it official on Thursday.
"Mason's the Mike now," said Morris firmly. "He'll be out there and he'll call all the huddle calls. He's growing up fast. He's very Freeman-like, where he's wise beyond his years, very cool, very calm, very collected. Things didn't bother him as much. Last game was a big time test for him, and now he's the Mike."
The topic was relevant because Black practiced for the second straight day and looks on pace to return soon. In addition, the team's third starting linebacker, Geno Hayes, passed his concussion test and has been cleared to play on Monday. Hayes, who starts on the weak side, also practiced Thursday.
The Buccaneers' nickel package, which is used to combat three-receiver sets, substitutes an extra cornerback for one of the three linebackers. Traditionally, it has been the strongside linebacker (or 'Sam') who exits in that scheme, leaving the middle (Mike) and weakside (Will) 'backers on the field. In the first two games, Black played Sam in base packages and Mike in the nickel, with Hayes joining him as the Will in both instances. Now, with Foster playing the Mike in the nickel, Black and Hayes are expected to share the nickel Will snaps.
"Those two guys will split the reps," said Morris. "Right now, Quincy's trying to get back to full [health], so we'll see what he can do as far as that stuff goes. Hopefully we'll get a chance to get all those guys out there. Last year we had a nice little mix between Quincy and Geno, both getting about 45 to 50 reps a game. That wouldn't be a bad deal to get back to."
Even with the return of Black to practice, the Bucs' injury report looked a bit longer than last week. In reality, however, not much has changed beyond Black's improvement.
Of the five players who did not practice on Thursday, two – tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe – were not held out due to injuries. Winslow commonly sits out the week's first practice as he manages his knees, and Briscoe was excused for a family matter. Tackle James Lee (knee) and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot) have each missed the last two games. The only real addition to the list was rookie tight end Zack Pianalto, who is recovering from a calf injury suffered during his NFL debut this past Sunday. The Buccaneers promoted rookie tight end Collin Franklin from the practice squad on Wednesday and thus still have a trio of healthy players at that position to take into Monday's game.
Lynch Takes Lead in Safety Battle
While the most likely scenario remains playing time for both players on Monday night, the battle between Larry Asante and Corey Lynch to start at free safety seems to be leaning slightly in Lynch's favor.
The Bucs are looking to replace safety Cody Grimm, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Atlanta, and Lynch and Asante make up the two most likely candidates, though safety Devin Holland is also in the mix. Morris suggested early in the week that both Lynch and Asante could see playing time in the game, but said the player who looked sharpest in practice this week would get to run out of the tunnel as the starter.
Though Lynch finished the Falcon game after Grimm's injury while Asante watched as one of the team's seven game day inactives, Asante is not a huge underdog in the battle. Morris explained that the team wanted to keep four of its five safeties active and that Lynch and Holland were considered more important to the team's special teams plans. Now all three of those safeties will be active (along with starting strong safety Sean Jones) and Morris remembers how well Asante played in the preseason.
"The safety battle is going well," said Morris. "We've got to talk about what Larry Asante's been able to do. He played well in the preseason, played really physical. He probably had a better safety camp than anybody that we've had up to this point. As far as special teams, Corey brings a lot of stuff and Holland brings a lot of stuff. To be able to keep those guys on the football team has been a luxury, so we still have four safeties up. We've still got a nice battle going on between Larry Asante, Corey Lynch and Holland. I have to say that Corey Lynch gets the favorite [label] today, but you never know with these guys. We might want to play them all and see what's going on. I like to give people opportunities."