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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The W's the Thing

Forget Jon Gruden’s homecoming or the reunion of Warren Sapp and his old teammates; this game is critical to the Buccaneers in one way and one way only: the standings


Corner-turned-safety Ray Buchanan is one of the many defensive imports who have helped the Raiders this year

There has been a wholesale flipping of coastal addresses since the last time the Buccaneers visited Oakland, in 1999.

Jon Gruden is now on the Bucs' sideline, not the Raiders. Conversely, Warren Sapp is wearing silver and black instead of Pewter. Tampa Bay has Oakland's former personnel man, Bruce Allen, as its general manager, and the Raiders have Tampa Bay's former starting guard Frank Middleton. There are other connections: Raiders-turned Bucs such as Tim Brown, Charlie Garner and Matt Stinchcomb, for instance. Many were on opposite sides when the Raiders thrashed Tampa Bay, 45-0, on December 19, 1999, giving the Bucs their only loss of the final nine weeks of that season.

Of course, in between – after Gruden's move to Tampa but before Sapp jumped to Oakland – the Buccaneers had one other meeting with the Raiders: Super Bowl XXXVII. The final game of the 2002 season was Tampa Bay's 48-21 drubbing of the Raiders in San Diego.

In other words, while these two teams have met only six times, including the playoffs, in 28 years, there is certainly plenty of history between them.

And, of course, one can expect the former-team connections to be the central story this week leading up to the seventh meeting, even if that's a topic some would rather not dwell on. Asked if he had any special thoughts about this game against his former employers, Gruden demurred.

"No, I don't," he said. "I just look forward to playing the game. It will be a great experience for me and certainly for Warren Sapp and Tim Brown and some of these ex-Raider guys and some of these ex-employees of the silver and black. I'd like to win the game."

That's the rub. While this prime-time ESPN game would be a wonderful headline between two former Super Bowl foes working on undefeated seasons, instead the Bucs and Raiders have one win between them. While Oakland still finds itself tied for the AFC West lead at 1-1, the Bucs are in an 0-2 hole, two games behind Atlanta already. The New England Patriots demonstrated just three years ago that a team can come back from an 0-2 start to win the Super Bowl; 0-3, however, would be uncharted territory for those with championship dreams.

All the noise of this week aside – and there is plenty, given the Oakland connections and the Bucs' sudden story at quarterback – the Bucs simply need a win, wherever they're scheduled to play. Tampa Bay hasn't started 0-3 since 1996, the last year before the team's current era of annual playoff contention began. The rough start has some worried that the franchise is cycling back to an unsuccessful period. That's not the feeling inside One Buccaneer Place, however. Given the strong start by the defense and special teams, the feeling is that an achievable improvement on offense would put the Bucs right back in contention.

"You know what? I feel good," said Gruden. "I feel good about the way we're competing. I mean, we are playing hard. We're flying around, we're finishing plays, we're not committing penalties, discipline has been good. It's just a couple of turnovers. It's a play here, a play there that's stunting a drive or setting us back behind in down and distance. And somebody, somewhere, in key situations we need him to step up now and make a big play to turn the tide of the football game. Am I disappointed? Yes, I'm very disappointed. I have a lot of pride in what I do also. As do these football players. So, it's a challenge right now; one that has to be met."

The Bucs slipped to 7-9 after their Super Bowl win over Oakland, but they remained in playoff contention until late in the year. The Raiders fell harder, dropping to 4-12, their worst record since 1997. Like the Bucs, however, they were very aggressive in the offseason, bringing in such key pieces as Sapp, DT Ted Washington, S Ray Buchanan, QB Kerry Collins and first-round draft pick T Robert Gallery. Most of the additions were on defense, and so far the results have been very good. After finishing 30th in the NFL's defensive rankings last year, including dead last against the run, the Raiders are fourth after two weeks this season.

That means another tough test for the Buccaneers' offense, which is still looking for its first touchdown this season. After serious struggles in the season opener in Washington, the Bucs moved the ball more effectively last Sunday against Seattle but still stalled once inside the opponent's 10. Also, Tampa Bay played most of the last three quarters of the Seattle game with second-year QB Chris Simms at the helm, leading to curiosity over who would start the Oakland game. Gruden ended that debate quickly by naming Brad Johnson the starter during his Monday press conference

"Brad will be the quarterback in Oakland and we expect for him to play well," said Gruden. "We have to help him, everybody. Not just the coaches, not just the linemen – wide receivers, tight ends and backs. We all have to pick up our play now and we'll let Brad Johnson find a way to help us win."

Though their record dropped five games in 2003, the Bucs' offensive ranking actually improved from 24th in the Super Bowl season to 10th last year. The Bucs had the league's sixth-best passing attack and Johnson set team records for passing yards and touchdowns. Still, the offensive line underwent massive changes and playmakers like Garner and Joey Galloway (now injured) were imported to broaden the Bucs' threat. Gruden believes that the offense needed more sudden, big plays and getting such results out of this unit is now the primary goal.

"I think along the way we're going to have four or five explosive plays per game," he said. "I'm talking about 20-yard plays. It's been hard getting a first down, let alone the explosive plays. If you are not getting explosive plays along the way it's hard to go 75 or 80 yards in 12-play drives. It's hard doing that. We made a living doing that for too long around here. We got to start getting explosive plays to stay up with the times in this league."

And they definitely need a win to stay up with the ultra-competitive NFC South. The Falcons are undefeated and the 1-1 Panthers are coming off a big win in Kansas City. New Orleans is also 1-1 and has proven to be a very tough opponent for the Buccaneers since the division was formed in 2002. Sunday night's game may be a reunion of sorts for past employee and teammates, but the Buccaneers will be looking forward, not back.

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