"We'll learn from this," promised Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy after his team's 45-0 loss at the hands of the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. While certainly true, what might be more prominent on Buccaneer fans' minds is how the Bucs will rebound from the defeat. In addition to the team's 9-5 overall record, Tampa Bay's recent history in games following wide defeats should give those fans hope.
The Buccaneers' outstanding defense has kept too many games from getting out of hand since Dungy took over as head coach in 1996. However, of the last five occasions on which Tampa Bay has been defeated by 20 or more points, dating back to early in '96, the team has followed with a victory the very next game. Three of those losses were shutouts like Sunday's game in Oakland, and each of those temporary downers was followed by a Buccaneer win.
That stretch begins on October 13 of 1996. The previous contest ended in a 27-0 home loss to Detroit that made Tampa Bay 0-5. After a bye week, the Bucs pulled off an enormous upset with a 24-13 dismissal of the then 5-1 Minnesota Vikings. Later in the season, the Bucs dropped a 24-0 decision in Carolina but came back the next week to upend an 8-5 Washington team, 24-10.
The game most similar to Sunday's meltdown in Oakland was a 31-0 loss at the hands of the New York Jets in the Meadowlands in December of 1997. Tampa Bay was 9-5 and stalking a playoff spot entering the penultimate week of the '97 season before the bizarre and deflating loss to the Jets. The Bucs did clinch a playoff spot that weekend, however, and were able to nail down a home game in the Wild Card round the next week by beating Chicago 31-15 in the season finale, played in Tampa.
Tampa Bay did follow a 1998 season-opening 31-7 loss at Minnesota with a 23-15 loss at Green Bay, although they came back to beat the Bears in their first home game, 27-15. The very next week, Detroit blitzed the Buccaneers 27-6 in the Pontiac Silverdome but Tampa Bay came back to swat the New York Giants, 20-3, in Raymond James Stadium.
A pattern such as this may not register any more importance in Dungy's mind than franchise-long woes on the West Coast or in cold weather, but it does indicate that his team is able to quickly overcome a loss in focus.
The December of '97 loss to the Jets could have seemed like a black mark on what was developing into a special season, but instead it became a quickly-forgotten aberration when the Bucs followed their Chicago win with a rousing postseason victory over the Detroit Lions and a spirited effort in Green Bay in the next round of the playoffs. Sunday's loss in Oakland could be rendered even more meaningless; thanks to other key losses around the NFC, Tampa Bay still leads the NFC Central by one game, still holds the second-best record in the conference and can still shuttle into the playoffs with one more victory. In fact, the team is still in the driver's seat for a first-round bye.
"That game was very similar (to the Oakland game)," said Dungy of the '97 loss in New York. "We came back and played well, bounced back to win when we needed to to get a home game. What we did that week was go back to the basics."
Of course, one would suspect that there is more than just a random pattern here. Since the Jets-Bears duet in 1997 seems the most relevant to the Bucs' current situation, a closer look at that game might provide some answers. Against the Jets, Tampa Bay gave up just 234 yards but lost by 31-0 largely due to three turnovers to New York's one. Two of those turnovers were returned for touchdowns and the Jets scored another TD on a kickoff return. The next week against Chicago, Tampa Bay held a 3-0 edge in takeaways, scored on a short drive following an interception and added a punt return touchdown.
Little went right for the Buccaneers in Oakland on Sunday, but turnovers were one thing that Dungy focused on following the game. After coming away with 19 turnovers during their six-game winning streak, the Bucs defense had none in Oakland while the offense surrendered the ball three times. It was one of the many reasons that Oakland was constantly working with a short field while the Bucs were usually starting from inside their own 20.
"We've been living on the edge with our turnovers over the last few games," said Dungy. "We're not going to be able to do that in the next two weeks."
The Bucs' record under Dungy, however, suggests that the team will be able to rebound. If so, Sunday's loss in Oakland may soon be just another game.