G Randall McDaniel is one of 16 Buccaneers who started every game during the 2000 regular season
John Lynch played with a left arm that could pop out of its shoulder socket at any moment. Derrick Brooks played through a shoulder injury that, if hit properly, could – and did – make his right arm go limp. Frank Middleton seemingly came away from each game's battle in the trenches with another painful injury to contend with. Shaun King limped through a groin injury, while early-season hard hits gave Keyshawn Johnson back and neck troubles.
But each one of these players, and 11 others, started every game for the Buccaneers during the season, which, taken in total, was a remarkable achievement.
Of the 22 starting positions on offense and defense, 16 were filled by the same player in each of the Buccaneers' 16 regular-season games. Overall, the team missed only seven player-starts due to injuries, three by FB Mike Alstott, two by LB Shelton Quarles and one each by T Pete Pierson and LB Jamie Duncan.
Never before in team history have the Bucs had as many as 16 players start every game during a season. This particular number, when charted over the rest of the decade, gives a good indication of how the roster and starting lineup have become stabilized under Head Coach Tony Dungy.
In 1992, when Sam Wyche took over as head coach, the Bucs had 11 players start all 16 games, but that total dropped to just four the next year. Since then, it has risen steadily as a string of outstanding drafts, plus shrewd contract decisions and a fairly fortunate streak of avoiding injuries has supplied the team with more and more outstanding players in starting positions.
In 1995, eight players started every game for the Bucs in Wyche's final campaign, then nine did so under Dungy in 1996. That number rose to 10 in '97 and 12 in '98, then dipped slightly to 11 last year before shooting up to 2000's record total of 16.
Moreover, two of the six positions that didn't feature the same player for 16 starts were a bit misleading. Warrick Dunn didn't open two games at his running back spot when the team opened in two-tight end alignments, and DT Warren Sapp didn't start at his position in Washington due to a coach's decision. Still, we won't count them in 2000 because we're making no special provisions for the years before, when similar occurrences surely took place.
The seven missed starts by Alstott, Duncan, Pierson and Quarles represented just under two percent of the total of 352 player starts. Only three players landed on injured reserve in 2000; the Bucs didn't exactly have an empty training room, but they were mostly free of the devastating, long-term injuries that can test a team's stability. The banged-up status of the team's linebacking corps at the end of the season, particularly Brooks' injury, was probably the team's most serious health situation of the year.
There were some significant losses before the season began, of course. T Jason Odom, who was originally slated to take over for the retired Paul Gruber at left tackle, never recovered from a 1999 back injury and the subsequent surgery, and was placed on injured reserve in late August. FB Kevin McLeod, who was expected to handle the majority of the team's lead-blocking duties, was suddenly diagnosed with a heart ailment in August and placed on the reserve/non-football illness list.
Odom's back problems opened the door for Pierson to start at left tackle, and he did so in all but one game this season. That missed start, against St. Louis on December 18, represented the only game missed by any of the team's five starters on the offensive line. That's as close as the team has ever come to having the same five guys on the front line in the same positions for an entire season.
The Bucs also never missed a start at wide receiver, tight end, quarterback, cornerback, defensive end or safety during the regular season. The catch is that this type of lineup stability, something that is part of Dungy's blueprint, still failed to produce the complete on-field consistency that Dungy expects. With the same players week after week, Tampa Bay was dominant on some Sundays and mysteriously ineffective on others.
"We're capable of playing championship football, and I think we showed that at times," said Dungy. "But championship football has to be a little more consistent than we were."
Though several of those consistent starters from 2000 are eligible to become free agents in March, Tampa Bay is likely to open the 2001 season with mostly the same lineup intact. Whether the Bucs can once again keep such stability in its regulars throughout next fall remains to be seen.
Four consecutive Pro Bowl trips certainly speak to the immense talents of Buccaneers LB Derrick Brooks and DT Warren Sapp. Each player has also been a first-team AP All-Pro selection two years running, which is an even more exclusive honor.
Pro Bowl invites carry the weight of fans, coaches and players' opinions, while the Associated Press award requires that you impress a host of NFL writers.
To make the Sports Illustrated 'Dr. Z All-Pro Team', however, you need to pass the test of just one man, though a rather demanding man it is.
Dr. Z, or Paul Zimmerman, senior writer for SI, chooses his own all-pro team annually, and the list often veers from Pro Bowl rosters and other highly-publicized all-star squads. Zimmerman employs his own criteria and grading system at each position and seems almost surprised, if not a little apologetic, when his all-pros match up with the conventional choices.
Still, Zimmerman agreed with the rest of the voters on the talents of Brooks and Sapp, placing each on his All-Pro team. Sapp and New Orleans' breakthrough star, La'Roi Glover, are the choices at defensive tackle while Brooks shares the outside linebacker spot with another Saint, Keith Mitchell.
At most positions, Zimmerman also lists several runners-up whose strong play was worthy of mention. At free safety, where Arizona's Pat Tillman is one of his off-the-beaten-path choices, Dr. Z includes the Bucs' Damien Robinson as one of his runners-up. He does the same with Marcus Jones at defensive end, where Baltimore's Rob Burnett and Philadelphia's Hugh Douglas are his top selections.