The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII behind one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. The Bucs allowed just over 12 points per game, picked off 31 passes while surrendering only 10 touchdown throws and even scored nine touchdowns of its own, including the playoffs.
Tampa Bay's offense was no slouch, either, especially after it came together in the second half of the season, then turned into a high-scoring crew in the playoffs. The Bucs outscored their opponents by 150 points in the regular season and by 69 points in the postseason. Even the special teams made huge contributions, with Martin Gramatica making nearly all his kicks and Karl Williams adding a touchdown return of his own.
The '02 Bucs featured the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, seven Pro Bowlers and three first-team AP All-Pros. However you slice it, this was a team of greatness. However, there were some moments during the 2002 season that were particularly great, some eye-opening accomplishments that spring directly to mind even now, a decade later. Games and even entire seasons can turn on a handful of plays, an acrobatic catch here or a perfectly-timed turnover there.
The Buccaneers' 2002 season was no different. Would the team possess the Super Bowl XXXVII Lombardi Trophy if even one of the following plays failed to occur. It's impossible to know, but we do know this: These are the iconic moments of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' greatest campaign. As we count down the days until that team gathers for its 10-year reunion and is recognized at halftime of Sunday's game at Philadelphia, we also take a moment to count down the biggest plays of 2002.
Counting Down: The Top 10 Plays of the 2002 Super Bowl Season
10. Brooks Enforces the Speed Limit
We've ordered these plays not chronologically but in terms of impact and memorability. This one actually comes from Week 14, when the Buccaneers passed another test on their way to immortality by shutting down the NFL's emerging star.
Atlanta and dual-threat QB Michael Vick came to town riding an eight-game unbeaten streak and sporting the label of the league's hottest team. It was such a marquee matchup that the NFL Commissioner came to town to watch it in person. The Bucs had been one of the few teams to slow Vick down in their earlier meeting in Week Five, but the speedy quarterback was coming off a mythical performance the week before in an overtime win over Minnesota, in which he ran for 173 yards. Could Tampa Bay's defense contain that speed once again?
Yes, indeed it could, thanks to its own on-field traffic cop, #55, Derrick Brooks. Atlanta started its second drive at its own 41 and almost immediately Vick tried to take off around right end. Brooks, shooting around the left end, took off in hot pursuit and shockingly caught Vick from behind before he could turn the corner. Vick would get just nine yards on six carries after Brooks set the tone with that play, and the Bucs would roll to a 34-10 victory.
Said DT Warren Sapp after the game: "[Vick] went past me and he went past [Greg] Spires and I said, 'There he goes.' Then here came our highway patrolman with his sirens on and the lights flashing. When he tackled him, Vick looked at him a little wide-eyed. He told me later he'd never seen anything like that."
9. Karl Williams Kicks Off Road Domination
In Week Two of the 2002 NFL season, the Buccaneers were an 0-1 team with a new head coach going on the road to face a team less than two years removed from a Super Bowl title of its own. In mid-September, no one yet realized that Tampa Bay would emerge as one of the league's best teams.
A 25-0 white-wash of the Ravens in Baltimore at least started the conversation, however. And the man who got that steamroller moving was Karl "The Truth" Williams.
The Bucs were leading just 3-0 in the first quarter when Williams fielded a punt at his own 44 and briefly took off to his left. He stopped when he saw Raven J.R. Johnson closing in fast, then darted right and gave Corey Ivy a chance to block Johnson out of the picture. A brief pause sent 250-pound TE John Johnson flying by, thanks to a block by the much smaller Ronde Barber. Williams then got two more key blocks from Aaron Stecker and Alshermond Singleton and suddenly he was alone on the left sideline, with nothing but empty grass in front of him. He scored and the Bucs never looked back, that day or the rest of the season.
"It's an amazing feeling when you turn around to see your teammates coming down to congratulate you," said Williams, "and you know all the hard work they've done to help you get there."
8. Quarles Saves the Day in Detroit
Truth be told, this was not the Buccaneers' finest outing in 2002. They arrived in Detroit in Week 15, fresh off that defining win over Atlanta, to find a Lions team that was 3-10 and had lost five in a row. QB Joey Harrington left the game in the first half due to an irregular heartbeat and was replaced by second-year man Mike McMahon, and suddenly the unheralded McMahon was cracking the Bucs' defense the way few quarterbacks had in 2002. Before the Bucs knew it, Detroit had erased a 10-point deficit, and as the third quarter ended, it was still knotted at 13-13.
To start the fourth quarter, McMahon threw a 37-yard pass to Aveion Cason, putting the Lions at Tampa Bay's 39. McMahon then tried to throw a short pass over the middle to WR Germane Crowell, but Quarles reacted quickly and got a hand on the ball, deflecting it high into the air. Lion offensive players converged on Quarles, but he was able to secure the loose ball before they arrived, producing the turnover that would turn the game. The Bucs drove 58 yards from there for the go-ahead touchdown, eventually prevailing 23-20 on Martin Gramatica's 38-yard field goal.
The Bucs in recent weeks had announced their Super Bowl worthiness with big wins against teams such as Green Bay and Atlanta, but the whole thing could have evaporated with an unexpected loss in Detroit. Quarles made sure that didn't happen.
"For us to win our division, we needed these last three games," said QB Brad Johnson. "We didn't play our best but that says something about the team when you don't play your best and still win. We are happy to get the win and get out of here."
7. Brooks Takes It Straight to the Tunnel
A week after defeating the Super Bowl XXXV champions in Baltimore, the Bucs welcomed the defending NFC champs to town, adding another chapter to a growing rivalry with the St. Louis Rams. This was, in fact, the third straight season that a Bucs-Rams game was deemed worthy of Monday Night Football.
The Bucs had a 19-7 lead in the fourth quarter after a one-yard Mike Alstott touchdown run, but Kurt Warner drove "The Greatest Show on Turf" for an answering score to make it a five-point game with four minutes to play. Tampa Bay's offense failed to burn much time off the clock on the next drive, meaning Warner and company had one more chance and 2:34 left on the clock to get it done.
At the start of the drive, Brooks was on the Bucs' sideline, having left with a pulled hamstring. He was not expected to return. However, when Quarles also sustained an injury, Brooks simply re-inserted himself into the game without asking. On the very next snap, Warner tried to throw a short pass in Brooks' vicinity and the linebacker darted in front of it, picking it off and heading in the other direction. With his gait obviously affected by the injury, Brooks nevertheless salted the game away with a 39-yard TD return and – now ready to surrender to treatment on his leg – simply ran through the end zone and directly into the stadium tunnel that led to the team's locker room.
6. Alstott Careens through Browns' Defense
While the defense pushed the Buccaneers to a four-game winning streak after their opening-day loss, Pro Bowl fullback had become something of a "forgotten man" in the Bucs' offense. He had not carried the ball more than 11 times or gained more than 29 rushing yards in any of the first five games. That would all change in Week Six versus Cleveland, as a career that was defined by amazing, second-effort runs would get perhaps its single most impressive highlight.
The game wasn't one of the Bucs' more nerve-wracking outings of the year. The defense continued to dominate and the home team was never in much danger, taking a 17-0 lead into the game's final minutes. Of more significance than the particular final score were Alstott's numbers: 17 carries for 126 yards and two touchdowns. There was, indeed, a very important role in Jon Gruden's offense for the long-time fan favorite.
"One thing I've always admired about Mike is that he doesn't make a big stink about things," said S John Lynch. "He waits for his opportunities, and when he gets them, he usually takes them and runs with them, and literally runs right through people."
Or bounces off them. Or wriggles free of their tackles. Or runs away from them. Or, on one unforgettable run in the fourth quarter, all of the above.
The final box score would show a run of 19 yards over right tackle, but that hardly described the play. Simply refusing to go down, Alstott bounced off six would-be Cleveland tacklers on the play, relying on one of his greatest assets as an NFL player, balance. In fact, at one point during the run he appeared to be about to go down when another Browns defender hit him and he somehow used the force of the blow to get his feet back under him and keep going.
5. Sapp Helps Brooks Score Again
The Bucs' first meeting with Vick was abbreviated, as DE Simeon Rice knocked him out with a vicious sack in the first half, bringing in backup Doug Johnson. The Bucs' defense was dominant once again and Tampa Bay had a 17-6 lead in the fourth quarter when the touchdown-happy Brooks once again found the end zone. This time he needed a little help from his friend.
Rice got to the quarterback again, hitting Johnson as he was trying to get off a short pass from his own 16. The football popped a few yards forward out of Johnson's hands and was intercepted by Sapp, who was in a crowd of linemen and immediately wrapped up from behind by Todd Weiner. Had the play ended there it probably would have served just fine as a game-clincher. But Brooks had another idea, and he expressed it with one word: "Doom."
Sapp recognized the word as Brooks' nickname for him and knew what the linebacker wanted. Just as he sprinted up from behind, in the direction of the Atlanta end zone, Sapp got off a two-handed shovel pass, almost without looking. Brooks caught it on the run and loped in for a 15-yard score.
The seven points were essentially window dressing on the Bucs' fourth straight win, but the play signaled early in the season that Sapp and Brooks were the NFL's most devastating combined defensive force.
4. Gramatica Kicks the Bucs to Victory
With Brad Johnson out due to illness, the Bucs found themselves in a low-scoring struggle in Carolina in Week Eight. After streaking to a 5-1 record, the team had absorbed a humbling loss in Philadelphia, and a second straight defeat in Carolina would have taken some of the luster off the team's growing ambitions.
Down 9-6 in the fourth quarter, the Bucs were forced to punt with less than four minutes to play. The game appeared to be slipping out of their reach, but instead it slipped right through the hands of return man Steve Smith and the Bucs had another shot. Aaron Stecker recovered and the Bucs, still unable to move the ball, sent out Martin Gramatica to try a 53-yard field goal. Earlier in the quarter, he had connected from 52 yards out. This kick, even more clutch, sailed just as true and the game was tied.
The Bucs got the ball back one more time and got it across midfield. After a 10-yard Karl Williams catch put it at the 29, the field goal unit had to hustle onto the field and get off a kick before the play clock expired. Once again, it went off with a hitch and Gramatica sent the Bucs to victory with a 47-yarder.
"He's clutch," said CB Brian Kelly. "I'm a Lakers fan and he's doing things similar to what Robert Horry does to teams. They feel like they're winning and all of a sudden, he hits that big three and takes their breath away from them."
3. Jurevicius Dots the I
In Week 12, the Green Bay Packers came to town, sporting an 8-2 record to match the Bucs' own mark. The winner would possess the best record in the NFL with five games to play.
Despite picking off Brett Favre four times, the Buccaneers still found themselves trailing by one, 7-6, in the third quarter. That's when Brian Kelly snared one of those four interceptions and returned it deep into Green Bay territory. Three Alstott runs led to a second-and-goal at the four, and that's when WR Joe Jurevicius ran a shallow out just across the goal line, heading towards the left edge of the end zone. He had tight coverage from CB Tyrone Williams, but Brad Johnson dropped a lob down through a tight window and Jurevicius caught it right by the sideline. Unfortunately, the officials ruled that Jurevicius had been led out of bounds by the catch.
Jon Gruden didn't agree and had the red challenge flag tossed onto the field, though even Buccaneer rooters weren't sure Jurevicius had made the play. After a lengthy delay, this was the announcement made by referee Johnny Grier, the last word of which set off an enormous eruption from the crowd:
"The receiver gained control of the ball in the air. His right foot hit down. He 'dotted the I' with the left foot, maintained possession he hit the ground. We have a touchdown!"
The Bucs would add one more insurance touchdown to win 21-7, but were left with little doubt that Jurevicius' catch was one of the key plays of the entire season. It led to Super Bowl thoughts, right then and there.
"We have one eye on the prize now," said CB Ronde Barber, who picked off a Favre pass essentially one-handed, his other hand wrapped in a club-like cast. "We have one eye on New Orleans, who we play next week. But the other eye is definitely on the prize."
2. Bucs Defense Picks Gannon Clean
If you are not a fan of top-play lists that "cheat" by lumping several plays together, then you might balk at this particularly entry. But the truth of the matter is, a list of top plays from the Bucs' 2002 season might be almost completely populated by Super Bowl interceptions if we didn't take this approach.
Super Bowl XXXVII was the first to pit the NFL's top-ranked offense against its top-ranked defense. In the end, it would prove to be no contest. Facing the NFL's MVP in Oakland QB Rich Gannon, Tampa Bay's once-in-a-lifetime defense picked off a Super Bowl record five passes, returning three of them for touchdowns, another Super Bowl record. Tampa Bay's offense performed quite well in the Super Bowl, too, helping produce a 27-3 lead midway through the third quarter, but the lopsided final score of 48-21 was as much the product of opportunistic defense as anything.
It began in the first half, when S Dexter Jackson nailed down MVP honors early with two momentum-changing interceptions. Both were the product of some now famous scouting of the Oakland offense by Gruden during the week of practice, as the coach relied on his knowledge from having spent the previous four years as the Raiders' head coach.
After Keenan McCardell's second touchdown catch pushed the lead to 27-3, Gannon tried to hit WR Jerry Rice on the left sideline but nickel back Dwight Smith cut in front, snatched the ball out from Rice's grasp, spun away and raced 44 yards for his first touchdown of the game. He would later add another pick-six on the game's final play from scrimmage. In between, after Oakland had mounted an at least slightly frightening rally to make it 34-21, Brooks got into the act with an interception in the middle of the field and his own 44-yard scoring return.
Brooks brought the football to the Bucs' sideline, tears streaming down his face because he knew he had just become an NFL champion.
"This defense kept bringing it and bringing it," he said later. "I was able to read the quarterback and pick that pass off. I'm just glad it came in the Super Bowl, and a Super Bowl we deserved to win."
1. Barber Carries the Bucs 92 Yards into the Super Bowl
One could certainly argue the order of these last two entries. Certainly the Super Bowl is the most important victory in franchise history and the touchdowns by Brooks and Smith were championship-clinching moments that will never be forgotten. Still, there are many who consider Ronde Barber's 92-yard interception return for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia to be the single most memorable play in franchise history. Various pictures of the play are scattered all over the walls of the team's One Buc Place headquarters.
In the final game ever played in Veterans Stadium, the Buccaneers overcame their personal hurdle of recent seasons, beating a favored Philadelphia team that had bounced them from the playoffs in 2000 and 2001 and beaten them in Philly earlier in the year. But big plays by Joe Jurevicius, Mike Alstott, Simeon Rice, Brad Johnson and Keyshawn Johnson helped the Bucs overcome an almost immediate Eagles score and build a 20-10 lead.
However, Donovan McNabb and the Eagles, stymied for most of the day, wouldn't go down without a fight late in the fourth quarter. Making a string of impressively improvisational plays, McNabb led the Eagles on a long drive that reached Tampa Bay's 10-yard line with 3:27 left in regulation. It wasn't hard to imagine the doomsday scenario – a touchdown makes it 20-17 and McNabb gets one more crack at it before the game is over.
The whole situation turned on a dime, however, thanks to the perfect bit of baiting pulled off by Barber.
Having noticed that McNabb went to a specific hot read earlier in the game when Barber came up on the left side of the line in what appeared to be a blitz formation, the Bucs' DB put that knowledge to use. This time he faked the same play, and sure enough McNabb reacted the same way. This time, though, Barber dropped off his blitz and, on the throw, which McNabb thought would be an uncontested short pass into the left flat to WR Antonio Freeman, he jetted in that direction. Barber caught the pass on a dead sprint and before anyone could react was gone down the sideline, right in front of a stunned Eagles bench. The Vet, moments before in full throat, was nearly silent by the time Barber crossed the goal line with the play that would seal the Bucs' first Super Bowl appearance.
"You couldn't hear a sound," said Lynch afterward. "The stadium noise stopped. There was that sweet silence. There was nothing to say."