FB Mike Alstott ran all over Cleveland during the Bucs' 2002 Super Bowl chase
As much as he seemed to relish the slam dance between the tackles, Mike Alstott's favorite part of a football afternoon, surprisingly, was not mowing down an overmatched defensive back or bouncing off a stunned linebacker.
The best part, Alstott said with a wisp of sadness at his retirement press conference last week, was throwing an arm around a teammate as the two trudged back to the locker room after a game. Slapping hands after a victory. Swapping stories. Comparing bruises. And, together, moving on to the next challenge.
"I think my great moments have come in that locker room, having a hard day, fighting all day with my teammates, after being through OTAs, training camps and whatnot," said the six-time Pro Bowl fullback. "Coming in that locker room and being able to give your teammates and peers hugs [and] congratulations – that's what I'll miss."
The strength of Alstott's bond with his teammates was clear at his press conference; he choked up several times as he contemplated walking away from those relationships, at least on a day-to-day basis. But the rugged fullback isn't the only one who will be missing out next fall. Buccaneer fans have grown accustomed to the thrills of a Mike Alstott highlight-reel run, even if his opportunities had come less frequently in recent years. From 1996-2006, Tampa Bay fans came to Raymond James Stadium knowing it could be the day their favorite son did something special, something they wouldn't forget for a long time.
There are other stars still wearing the red and pewter, of course, and more will arise in years to come. There will be no lack of thrills on Sundays at Raymond James Stadium. Still, on the occasion of Alstott's final ride into the football sunset, we are going to take the opportunity to look back at his best days, the defining afternoons in an unforgettable Buccaneer career.
Specifically, we're going to count down Mike Alstott's 10 greatest NFL games, or at least our version of that list. Yours may differ, and that's another testament to how enjoyable Alstott's career was for hundreds of thousands of Buccaneer fans.
To begin, we'll look at games 10 through six. The top five games will be revealed later in the week.
Mike Alstott's 10 Greatest NFL Games, Part I
10. Buccaneers 29, Packers 10…Raymond James Stadium, December 26, 1999.
Tampa Bay was coming off one of its most stunning losses ever, a 45-0 drubbing at the hands of Jon Gruden's Oakland Raiders that seemed to come out of nowhere, snapping a six-game winning streak. That Green Bay, the hurdle the Buccaneers had been trying to clear for years, was up next spelled potential trouble as Tampa Bay tried to hold on to its first division title in 18 years.
Instead, the Buccaneers dominated. And, as was often the case on the Bucs' best days in that era, the domination was built on stingy defense and a punishing running attack. On this day, the defense set the tone early and Alstott brought the punishment late. In fact, the two worked hand-in-hand to produce the game-clinching points, as Alstott scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns following Green Bay turnovers.
Statistically, it wasn't one of Alstott's top performances, as he finished with 79 yards on 19 carries and one catch for three yards. But he found the end zone when the Bucs needed him to – a phrase that could sum up his career, as a matter of fact – including the final score on a 17-yard run that included an open-field juke of Mike McKenzie that left the Packer cornerback grasping at air.
And, most importantly, Alstott wore the Packers down. Green Bay, who would end up missing the playoffs by one win, took a 10-9 lead into halftime, but the Bucs jumped back on top in the third quarter with Warrick Dunn's eight-yard touchdown catch, then simply played keep-away.
Of Alstott's 79 rushing yards, 61 came in the fourth quarter. A tired Green Bay defense had no answer for the A-Train, who channeled the growing roar of the RayJay crowd into one bruising plunge after another.
That game would prove to be the penultimate appearance of tackle Paul Gruber's stellar career. Though the Bucs would go on to the NFC Championship Game in St. Louis that January, Gruber's final game came the next weekend in Chicago, as he sustained a broken leg in the division-clinching win over the Bears. There might not have been too many games he enjoyed more than that Alstott-fueled win over Green Bay.
"The thing is that as an offensive lineman, you like to wear teams down and it was always fun to see what a strong runner he was in the fourth quarter, and just how he punished people," said Gruber. "It would get to a point in the game where most teams didn't want to tackle him anymore."
9. Buccaneers 27, Bears 15…Raymond James Stadium, September 20, 1998.
This game, of course, is one of the most memorable in team history for reasons beyond Alstott's star turn.
The fullback's first 100-yard rushing effort just happened to coincide with the opening of Raymond James Stadium…and a dramatic comeback win that gave the gleaming new arena a proper debut. The Buccaneers stumbled through the first half of their housewarming party and trailed 15-0 at halftime; fortunately, they stuck with the ground game after the intermission and it paid off in a big way.
Alstott and Dunn – "Thunder and Lightning," as they would come to be known – had struggled to gain much ground during the Bucs' 0-2 start, even though both players were coming off their first Pro Bowl seasons in 1997. They had just 26 yards between them at halftime of this game, as well.
But the second half opened with an 81-yard touchdown drive on which the two backs combined to carry the ball seven times. After tight end Dave Moore made an acrobatic, one-handed touchdown catch and Dunn sprinted 43 yards for another score, it was time for Alstott to put the game away. On one very physical fourth-quarter drive, Alstott ran for 13 yards, then 18 more, then the final two on one of his signature third-effort touchdowns.
By game's end, Alstott had 103 yards on 20 carries and the Bucs had their stadium-opening victory by a comfortable margin. That career-high rushing total would stand only two months, however, as an even greater day against Minnesota was looming. (You'll have to wait until Part II to see what we mean.)
8. Buccaneers 13, Broncos 10…Raymond James Stadium, September 26, 1999.
If a common theme for Alstott's biggest days is his late-game supremacy, then this grinder of a victory against Denver flipped the script.
Believing the best way to attack the Broncos' defense was with power runs up the gut, the Bucs jumped on Alstott's back on the second play of the game and didn't get off until he had produced a career-best 131 yards on 25 carries. In this case, Alstott had 66 yards by the end of the first quarter and the Bucs' game plan for the rest of the afternoon was set.
"A lot of teams had success [against Denver] running the ball, and we're a running team first," said Alstott after the win. "That's what we wanted to establish and that's what we did. They started bringing nine, 10 men in the box, and we did a good job of picking them up. We usually bring up the safeties and try to force them back inside and then run them over or make them miss. We did a good job of that Sunday."
With Alstott pounding and pounding between the tackles, it didn't take long for the Broncos' front to break. On the ninth play of the game, Alstott started left behind his blocking, then cut right and was suddenly in the clear; 28 yards later, he was in the end zone with the game's first score.
Alstott enjoyed the chance to run around in the open field for once.
"When you're running it 25 times, you'll be pounding it, pounding it, and then you see an opening like that and it's great," he said. "It's a tribute to the offensive line and the lead blockers."
The Broncos would match that score later in the first quarter after Jacquez Green muffed a punt at the Bucs' 12. However, Alstott's 15-yard run on the next drive would set up a second-quarter field Martin Gramatica field goal, and one more three-pointer before halftime would be all the home team would need to take the victory.
There was, however, one nervous moment that nearly turned Alstott's career-best outing into a regrettable afternoon. After Derrick Brooks tackled tight end Shannon Sharpe three yards short of a first down on a fourth down at midfield, the Bucs took over with 2:33 left in the game. This, of course, was prime Alstott territory – a first down or two would seal the victory, and even a stacked Denver front wasn't likely to stop him.
In fact, two plays after Brooks tackle, Alstott plowed into the line, broke several tackles and suddenly shot into the second level of the defense. He rumbled 25 yards downfield, perhaps eyeing a put-away touchdown. Instead, linebacker Nate Wayne managed to catch him from behind and pop the ball loose, with Denver recovering at their own 15. Fortunately, the Bucs' defense held fast and the Broncos never even got a first down.
7. Buccaneers 48, Raiders 21…January 26, 2003, Qualcomm Stadium
While far from his statistical high, this very well may be Alstott's favorite game, for obvious reasons.
There were many stars in the Bucs' demolition of Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII, starting with a defense that scored a Super Bowl-record three touchdowns. Safety Dexter Jackson (two first-half interceptions) was chosen as the game's MVP, and he could have lost votes to cornerback Dwight Smith (two interception-return TDs, a Super Bowl first), linebacker Derrick Brooks (the game-sealing, fourth-quarter touchdown), defensive end Simeon Rice (two sacks) and defensive end Greg Spires (one sack, a pass deflection that led to an interception).
On offense, the Bucs were efficient and multi-faceted. Wide receiver Keenan McCardell scored touchdowns on his only two catches; wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson had six grabs for 69 yards; running back Michael Pittman had his best day of the entire season, with 124 yards on 29 carries; the offensive line allowed nary a sack; and quarterback Brad Johnson directed the whole thing with his standard poise and accuracy.
But Alstott was far from a forgotten piece, even if he did finish with just 58 combined rushing and receiving yards. When the team first got to the goal line in the second quarter, leading just 6-3, it was to Alstott they turned to punch it in. After Karl Williams' 25-yard punt return and Pittman's 19-yard run down to the two, Alstott bashed up the middle for the final two yards and the game's first touchdown.
For the team's all-time leading touchdown producer, this score was the perfect cherry on the top of his career.
"I lived in Chicago before we bought the Buccaneers, and I know how that town agonized over the fact that the great Walter Payton did not score a touchdown in his Super Bowl," said Executive Vice President Bryan Glazer. "I'm so happy that [Alstott] had that opportunity to score a touchdown in the team's greatest time.
Alstott also turned in one of the most important plays of the second half, though it certainly drew less attention. After the Bucs rolled to a 34-3 third-quarter lead, the Raiders mounted a mini-rally on the strength of a blocked punt and two long touchdown passes. The last of those scores made it 34-21 with six minutes to play and was followed by a touchback on the ensuing kickoff.
The Bucs needed to kill the clock but got just three yards on two Pittman carries. Oakland called a timeout after the second one, with 5:17 left. Tampa Bay could have played the odds conservatively on third-and-seven, running again to at least chew up 40 seconds or force the Raiders to burn their last timeout.
Instead, the call was a play-action pass, with Alstott rumbling out of the backfield and cutting towards the right sideline. Johnson hit the veteran fullback, always a fine receiver, in the numbers and the result was a nine-yard gain. Thanks to that first down, the Raiders would have just 2:44 left when they finally got the ball back, and the defense would take advantage of their desperation with two more touchdown returns.
6. Buccaneers 17, Browns 3…October 13, 2002, Raymond James Stadium
Let's allow Brad Johnson to set the scene:
"I remember a really hot day against Cleveland in 2002 when we handed off the ball to him and nobody blocked anybody. He must have run over nine guys – just one of his signature plays. He had a career of always making something happen when nothing was there."
That was indeed a hot day in Tampa – 85 degrees at kickoff, with 74% humidity – and Alstott's 19-yard run in the middle of the fourth quarter was without a doubt one of his trademark moments. The game as a whole was also significant for the veteran runner as it was one of the many times over the past six years that he proved he was far from spent.
The Bucs started out their Super Bowl season 4-1, but Alstott's role had seemingly been reduced. Through those first five games, the fan favorite had just 33 carries for 82 yards. Everyone from Head Coach Jon Gruden to Alstott himself preached patience. Alstott would be needed again.
That patience paid off in Game Six, on that muggy afternoon, as the Bucs once again turned to their formula of defense and power running. Alstott had just two carries for five yards – and a touchdown – at halftime, but the Bucs had a 10-0 lead and Cleveland's offense was dead in the water.
After neither team scored in the third quarter, the Bucs decided to put it in Alstott's hands once again. He ripped off a 25-yard run at the end of the third period, then turned a third-and-three on the first play of the fourth quarter into a 17-yard touchdown run. Alstott ran five straight times and gained all 55 yards on the scoring drive.
With Pittman and Aaron Stecker sharing some of the carries, the Bucs racked up 186 yards on 38 carries, and Pittman and Alstott also combined for 108 yards on seven receptions. Pittman had one of the game's biggest plays with a 64-yard reception, but even he acknowledged the spark that Alstott gave the offense in the fourth quarter.
"It started clicking when Mike went in there," said Pittman. "He just wore them down."
And, on that aforementioned 19-yard run, he simply ran them over. In what will be remembered as one of the best individual plays of his career, Alstott careened from the Bucs' 32 to the Browns' 49 despite nearly every Cleveland defender getting a hit on him at some point. In fact, eight different Browns tried to tackle Alstott before the ninth defender finally brought him down. The run was a prime example of perhaps Alstott's greatest physical gift – his extraordinary balance. At one point during the run, he began to stumble to the ground, only to use another hit by a Cleveland player to propel him back up and over his feet and allow him to gain more yardage.