Fantasy football has been around since the 1960s and has been somewhat mainstream since the 1980s. It was certainly quite popular in 1997, though nothing on the order of today, when the subsets of "NFL fans" and "fantasy players" are rapidly closing in on complete overlap.
Nineteen ninety seven was something of a turning point for fantasy football, in that it was the year CBS kicked off the era of free online playing, leading to a rapid explosion in participation. But this is a Buccaneers story, and 1997 is a fantasy demarcation point for several different reasons for Tampa Bay's team. That was the year that the franchise both adopted new colors and began a significant and long-lasting turnaround.
Beginning with the Bucs' 10-6 playoff season in 1997, the team began to take on more of what hobbyists would call "fantasy relevance." Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott had some very productive virtual years (a decade later, Dunn would be featured in a sublime commercial calling Alstott a "touchdown vulture"), and Brad Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell had some high-scoring seasons as well. And there was the Buccaneers' defense, always that defense.
The Buccaneers left their orange uniforms behind at right about the same time fantasy football began to draw a massively higher amount of attention. Few long-time fantasy players, even rabid Buccaneer fans, reminisce fondly about "that great Errict Rhett season" or "the time I started Vinny Testaverde in his huge game against Green Bay."
But the Buccaneers will be putting their orange uniforms on again this weekend for a Throwback Game against the New Orleans Saints, and there's certainly reason to anticipate good returns from the likes of Josh Freeman, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. All of which got us thinking: If fantasy football had been just as popular and widespread during the Buccaneers' 21 years in orange, who would have been the team's best producers?
True, the Buccaneers had more tough years than good ones in orange, and even the successful teams of the late '70s and early '80s were driven by stingy defenses. Still, there were some offensive stars along the way, even during the rougher years, from James Wilder to Jimmie Giles to Mark Carrier. Feel like reminiscing during this Throwback Week and feeding your fantasy football jones? Read on as we bring the fantasy football era to the days of orange.
1. RB James Wilder, 1984
Until recently, running backs dominated the first two rounds of everybody's fantasy drafts. These days, a lot more quarterbacks and receivers (and even a few tight ends) invade the early picks because there are fewer running backs that own their team's backfields. "Featured" backs like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson are still coveted, but far fewer in supply.
Rarely in league history has there been a running back that was more featured than the Buccaneers' James Wilder in 1984.
That year, Wilder set a (since-broken) NFL record with 407 carries, turning them into 1,544 yards and 13 touchdowns. That accounted for 84.3% of Tampa Bay's rushes that year, 86.9% of its very patriotic 1,776 rushing yards and 76.5 of its rushing touchdowns. No stat vultures here to peck at Wilder's stats.
But that's not all. Wilder also caught 85 passes, and while they only translated into 685 yards and no touchdowns, that would still make for a nice boost to any back's fantasy stats, especially in a PPR league. Wilder was the Bucs' leading receiver as well as top rusher. And on one special week – against Green Bay in December – Wilder not only ran for 88 yards and caught 11 passes but also completed his only career pass for a 16-yard touchdown. In some leagues, this would have been the championship week, and Wilder's trick-play TD could have been the difference.
Wilder's fantasy stats are fantasy fantastic even in a vacuum. Baltimore's Ray Rice was a top-three pick in most leagues this summer, and he was coming off a season in which he ran for 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns and added 76 catches for 704 yards and three more scores. Wilder easily matched that fantasy production in 1984, and he had never before gained more than 604 yards in a season. Think of where you would have been able to get Wilder in your fantasy drafts heading into the '84 season.
More importantly, Wilder stacked up well against the rest of the league. He was third in the NFL in rushing behind Eric Dickerson and Walter Payton (those two would probably would have gone 1-2 in that year's fantasy draft). He was tied for third in rushing TDs behind Dickerson and John Riggins. He was second behind only Dickerson – and only barely – in combined rushing and receiving yards. And he was even second in the league behind Washington WR Art Monk in receptions. That was more than Roger Craig, O.J. Anderson and Marcus Allen.
And, remember, Wilder had virtually no competition for the football in Tampa Bay's offense. This is, without a doubt, the greatest fantasy football season in Buccaneers history. And it happened in orange.
2. WR Mark Carrier, 1989
You remember Jerry Rice and Sterling Sharpe, right?
In 1989, Rice led the NFL with 1,483 receiving yards, a typical year for the greatest receiver of all time. Sharpe was right behind at 1,423. Other names in the top 10 that year read like a who's who of the greatest pass-catchers of a generation: Henry Ellard, Andre Reed, Webster Slaughter.
But in third on that list, just one yard behind Sharpe, was the Buccaneer's Mark Carrier, breaking out in a big way in his third NFL season. With strong-armed Vinny Testaverde throwing the ball deep, Carrier caught 86 passes (more than Rice) for 1,422 yards and nine touchdowns. As a comparison, Atlanta's Roddy White recorded 1,296 yards and eight scores last year, and he was coming off the board high in the second round in your drafts this year.
Carrier did lose out to Rice and Sharpe in the touchdown department, as those latter two had 17 and 12 scores, respectively. But only two other players in the NFL caught 10 TDs that year (Anthony Miller and John Taylor), so Carrier was still among the elite with his nine. And where he would make any fantasy owner oh so happy was in his consistency.
Carrier broke the 100-yard receiving mark a whopping nine times in 1989, easily a franchise record. Moreover, five of those nine big games came during the last six weeks of the season, as did five of his nine touchdowns. If you were riding Carrier's consistent performances during your fantasy season, and stuck with him at the end, he rewarded you with weekly winning totals down the stretch.
3. TE Jimmie Giles, 1985
Viewing Giles' career in retrospect, as we did last year when he was inducted into the Buccaneers' Ring of Honor, he was clearly a predecessor to today's age of big-play tight ends. Giles averaged nearly 15 yards a catch during his career, and during his early-'80s prime had two seasons of nearly 18 yards per grab. Giles wasn't merely a blocker who could release for a short outlet pass; he was a speed threat who could work the seams downfield.
All of this was known well before 1985, and Giles would have been a great TE fantasy pick anywhere between 1979-81, even if his overall numbers aren't what one expects from a Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski these days. One could argue, however, that 1985 was Giles' most valuable fantasy season, in that he returned much greater fantasy production than his probable draft position.
From 1982-84, Giles never had more than 28 catches, 499 yards or three touchdowns in a season. That was partly due to injuries, as he missed time in '83 and '84. Giles turned 31 in 1985 and he would have only one more year as an NFL starter after that. But, as his eventual Pro Bowl selection at the end of the year would attest, Giles was one of the NFL's most productive tight ends that year.
Ozzie Newsome and Doug Cosbie were the other Pro Bowl tight ends from 1985, but the three most productive fantasy players at the position were Detroit's James Jones, the Jets' Mickey Shuler and the Bucs' Giles. Jones, however, was basically a hybrid fullback/tight end player and he got a lot of his value out of running the ball. Shuler tops the list with his 76 catches for 879 yards and seven touchdowns, but Giles is right behind with 43-673-8.
Moreover, Giles had the single best game performance of the year by a tight end when he caught seven passes for 116 yards and four touchdowns against Miami in October. That game alone, from a tight end, would win many a fantasy game for his owner.