Soon I will have the privilege of attending a "watch party" with Tampa Bay Buccaneers legend Warrick Dunn, as together we relive and break down the team's famous shootout win over Marshall Faulk and the St. Louis Rams in 2000. I'm sure it will be as much fun as when I shared a review of the 2002 NFC Championship Game with that game's hero, Rondé Barber.
It is a common opinion – and one that I share – that the wild 38-35 victory over the defending Super Bowl champions in Week 16 of that 2000 season is the best regular-season game in franchise history. It had the revenge factor following the previous year's NFC Championship Game in St. Louis, it had the Monday Night Football spotlight and a delirious crowd, it had an incredible amount of fireworks and it featured one of the Bucs' single most memorable plays ever.
It's definitely the most exciting Bucs game I've viewed in person, but I have to admit there were 16 seasons of Tampa Bay football before I showed up. I also have to admit that, while the win over the Rams did clinch a playoff spot for the Buccaneers, there have been some other memorable regular-season games that ultimately had more on the line. The Bucs went into that Week 16 game in 2000 knowing that, even with a loss to the Rams, they could still get in the dance with a win at Green Bay the following weekend.
So, in the interest of expanding the field on this whole "greatest regular-season game in Buccaneers history" pronouncement, here are 10 other contests that could give it a run for its money, presented in chronological order:
· Dec. 11, 1977 – Bucs 33, Saints 14…This is obviously the first win in franchise history but it was also a bolt-out-of-the-blue performance that foreshadowed the rise of the first great Tampa Bay defense. The Bucs recorded three pick-sixes in the win in the Superdome; the only other time they've done that in one game was Super Bowl XXXVII.
· Dec. 16, 1979 – Bucs 3, Chiefs 0…This wouldn't be the choice for any fans who favor offensive fireworks, as it is the lowest-scoring game in franchise history. Played in a torrential downpour at old Tampa Stadium, the victory clinched Tampa Bay's first division win and playoff berth. The only offense that worked for either team was Bucs RB Ricky Bell and the only points were provided near the end by kicker Neil O'Donoghue.
· Dec. 20, 1981 – Bucs 20, Lions 17…This was a winner-take-all meeting in Detroit for the NFC Central title, with the loser missing out of the playoffs completely. The Buccaneers got their winning points on one of the most exciting plays in team history, as the great Lee Roy Selmon sacked Eric Hipple and forced a fumble that David Logan returned 21 yards for a touchdown.
· Aug. 31, 1997 – Bucs 13, 49ers 6…Tampa Bay began its rise from the ashes with this defensive thriller against a loaded San Francisco team that would finish the season 13-3. Warren Sapp knocked Jerry Rice and Steve Young out of the game, leading a seven-sack performance by a rising Bucs defense that would hold the 49ers to 191 total yards. This win kicked off a five-game winning streak that propelled the Bucs to their first playoff berth in 15 years.
· Nov. 1, 1998 – Bucs 27, Vikings 24…The Randall Cunningham-Randy Moss Vikings would go 15-1 in 1998, losing only this back-and-forth thriller at Raymond James Stadium. Tony Dungy and the Bucs had a series of impressive wins over his former squad in the late 1990s but this one was probably the most impressive. The Thunder & Lightning duo of Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn went off for 292 yards from scrimmage and this remains the only game in team history in which two different backs each surpassed 100 rushing yards.
· Nov. 13, 2005 – Bucs 36, Washington 35…This one is famous for turning on one of the boldest in-game coaching decisions in Buc annals. After Edell Shepherd made a diving catch of a 30-yard Chris Simms pass with 58 seconds left in regulation, the Bucs were poised to tie the game with an extra point and probably send it to overtime. After an overly-aggressive Washington defense twice jumped offside trying to block the kick, Jon Gruden elected to go for two and the win, sending in Alstott to the surprise of absolutely no one. Alstott spun off a hit a yard shy of the goal line and just managed to extend the ball over the line for the winning points.
· Dec. 24, 2005 – Bucs 27, Falcons 24 (OT)…Fans who came to Raymond James Stadium on the afternoon of Christmas Eve got the gift of nearly five quarters of football. After Cadillac Williams tied the game with 31 seconds left on a fourth-down touchdown run, the Bucs won the toss for overtime but soon were in serious danger of losing when Shepherd fumbled on the opening kickoff. However, Dewayne White blocked Todd Peterson's short field goal attempt and the action progressed until the final minute of the extra period. With a playoff spot and a possible division title hanging in the balance, the Falcons chose to punt from deep in their territory and go for the tie but Matt Bryant won it with a 41-yarder.
· Nov. 2, 2008 – Bucs 30, Chiefs 27 (OT)…Another overtime win for the Bucs, but this one was only possible after the visitors overcame a 24-3 first-half deficit, recording the largest comeback win in franchise history. Rookie Clifton Smith kicked off the rally with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and RB Earnest Graham later threw a halfback-option touchdown pass to Alex Smith. Jeff Garcia tied it with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Bryant with 19 seconds left and Matt Bryant won it in overtime.
· Sept. 9, 2018 – Bucs 48, Saints 40…This is the highest-scoring Week One game in NFL history. The Buccaneers shocked the Superdome crowd by building a 48-24 lead early in the fourth quarter but then had to hold off Drew Brees and a furious rally in the final 12 minutes. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns but his biggest play may have been the 12-yard scramble on third-and-11 that kept Brees from getting one more crack at sending it to overtime.
· Sept. 29, 2019 – Bucs 55, Rams 40…And this one is the highest-scoring game in franchise history, both in terms of the Buccaneers' final total and the combined points for both teams. Though the winning margin was 15 points, this one went down to the wire before former Ram Ndamukong Suh clinched it with a 37-yard fumble return for a touchdown after eventual sack king Shaq Barrett stripped the ball from Jared Goff. This one featured 982 total yards of offense and a huge day for breakout star Chris Godwin.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as it currently stands.
Did I include your favorite game on the list? Either way, we now move on to your questions for this week.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- @darknight1805, via Instagram
Two words – perhaps the most succinct question in this mailbag's history. It doesn't quite say if this is meant to be the Buccaneers' most valuable player or the NFL MVP, but I'll guess the former. If we're talking the NFL, the odds-on favorite has to be Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, followed by a short list of quarterbacks that includes the reigning MVP Lamar Jackson of Baltimore, Seattle's Russell Wilson and even the Bucs' own Tom Brady, if the season goes well enough. The first non-quarterback I would included would be Christian McCaffrey, who is likely going to have the necessary stats but would need the Panthers to be a lot better than they were last year.
But, again, I assume this is a request for a Buccaneers' MVP prediction. There's no point in being coy about it – the obvious answer is Brady. Really, in most seasons you want your team MVP to be your quarterback. If he has an outstanding season, there's a good chance your team is going to win a lot of games. Tampa Bay's MVP last year would probably be either Shaquil Barrett, the NFL's sack leader, or Chris Godwin, who finished second in the NFL in receiving yards per game and scored nine touchdowns, but the Bucs finished 7-9 overall. Though he set a team record for touchdown passes and led the NFL in passing yards, Jameis Winston wouldn't be the top choice thanks to his 30 interceptions.
Now, the belief is that Brady will be able to put up big numbers in the Bucs' loaded offense – maybe not 5,000 yards but somewhere north of 4,000 – while turning the ball over much less frequently. If he succeeds in that and everything else remains roughly the same from 2019, the Buccaneers will probably end up in the playoffs and Brady will be a candidate to win his fourth NFL MVP award. It's hard to imagine the NFL MVP not being the team MVP.
Other reasonable candidates include Barrett and Godwin, Mike Evans and either one of the team's inside linebackers, Lavonte David and Devin White. David has already had a couple seasons in which he would be a good choice as Buccaneers' MVP and he's right at the heart of probably the best defense he's been involved in since arriving in Tampa. White could draw support if he turns into the big-play producer the Buccaneers expected when they took him fifth overall in the 2019 draft.
Still, if by the end of the season the team's MVP is someone like Barrett or David, it will be a nice and well-deserved honor for that player but it will probably mean the Bucs did not fully achieve their team goals in 2020. Derrick Brooks was clearly the MVP of the 2002 team that won the Super Bowl and Warren Sapp was probably the MVP of the 1999 team that nearly made it to the big game, but I consider those exceptions to the general rule. They were the leaders of a legendary defense; this year, the Buccaneers are led by a legendary quarterback.
How many touchdowns will this unit have this year?
Well, Erik, by "this unit," do you mean this Buccaneers offense or this Buccaneers team as a whole. The reason I seek a clarification is because Tampa Bay scored 54 total touchdowns last year, a single-season franchise record by five over the previous season, but six of those came on defense. Now, those 48 offensive touchdowns were still a team record, by one over the 2018 squad, but it is a different starting point as we try to figure out where the team and the offense will go from there.
Let's go with offensive touchdowns as the prediction. In the NFL, offensive production tends to be a little more stable from year to year for any given team then defensive production. In the Bucs' case, I think we can reasonably expect the offense to be one of the most productive in the NFL after it tied for fourth in touchdowns in 2019, behind only Baltimore, San Francisco and Tennessee. Virtually every player is back from that offense, with the obvious exception of Brady replacing Winston. On top of that, the Bucs have added tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Rookie offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs could make a positive difference, too, and is likely to at least be as effective as the man he will replace, Demar Dotson.
I know I just said that defensive team stats are more likely to fluctuate, but Tampa Bay has reason to be optimistic that its defense will be very good in 2019, too. That hope is based on an impressive second-half turnaround that was fueled by a whole lot of very young players who haven't even reached their primes yet. A full season of a healthy Devin White plus the type of performances turned in by young corners Sean Murphy-Bunting, Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean in the season's second half could make this group special. According to Football Outsiders' popular DVOA evaluation, the Bucs were so good in the second half that they rose to fifth in the league by season's end.
The reason I bring this up is that a stingier defense might actually lead to fewer points by the Bucs' offense this year. I think Bruce Arians would like to run a more balanced offense in 2020 than the one that finished first in passing and 24th in rushing in 2019. To do that, the Bucs have to avoid falling into a hole on the scoreboard, which then requires a lot more passing to try to catch up. And if the Bucs can actually gain some healthy leads through a strong defense and a less turnover-prone offense, they can run the ball even more. A balanced offense would probably be better for the win-loss bottom line, but it also might be a little less prolific than in 2019, or 2018 for that matter.
Of course, Tom Brady has a 50-touchdown-pass season on his resume, and six others in which he finished north of 30. He averaged 26.5 touchdown passes over his final two seasons in New England, but most analysts would agree that the current offensive cast in Tampa is much better than what surrounded Brady in New England in those two years. Brady has his best touchdown buddy back with the addition of Gronkowski, and he's got two receivers who are good bets to finish the 8-10 TD range. The Bucs actually scored 15 rushing touchdowns last year despite a below-average ground game, which isn't bad. Let's predict a slight regression from 33 to 30 touchdown passes but keep the rushing touchdowns the same, at 15. That's a total of 45 offensive touchdowns. That's my prediction, Erik.
Of course, all of this is presupposing a full 16-game season. If it becomes something less than that, most predictions of this sort will become meaningless.
What's going on with Justin Evans?
Put this into a huge pile of questions that are going to start getting answers once football finally returns, but probably not at any time until then.
Had this been a normal NFL offseason, and not one where COVID-19 quarantining wiped out all on-field workouts, we'd have a much better feel for where Justin Evans is in his return from foot injuries that have cost him about a season and a half. As it is, there is no real avenue for helpful information on him or any other Bucs returning from injuries.
The Bucs had been hopeful that Evans would get back on the field at some point during the OTAs or the usual mandatory mini-camp in June. Of course, none of that happened. Had Evans indeed returned to practice, there would have been some indication over the course of a few weeks how that was going, and then we'd be able to better predict how ready he would be for the starting training camp. I do consider that initial hope for his summer return to be a good sign, as is the fact that Bruce Arians does include Evans when he discusses the candidates to start at the two safety spots, which is probably the least settled portion of the Bucs' depth chart. Other than that, though, we're going to have to wait at least a few weeks to no more about Evans' chances in 2020.